Q. I keep hearing more scary news about Teflon being toxic, but how bad is it, really? I love my non-stick pan because I can make a super-healthy egg white omelet without any butter or oil at all. Which is worse for my health—greasy food or toxic fumes?  -Alice Marie, Brooklyn, NY

A. Teflon can actually be pretty bad—for you personally as well as the environment/rest of the human race/animal kingdom. The non-profit Environmental Working Group ran some simple tests and found that nonstick pans can get hot enough to release toxic fumes on ordinary stoves within a few minutes. And while it’s not clear what level of exposure can cause health problems in people, consider this: Teflon-related fumes have killed pet birds by suffocation within 30 minutes. And a host of studies have identified potentials risks of everything from hypothyroidism to cancer in people and lab animals exposed to the perflorooctanic acid (PFOA) involved in making Teflon. PFOAs are also emitted into the environment during the manufacturing process; they’re found in the blood of 95 percent of Americans. (You might wonder why PFOA isn’t banned, right? Never fear. The always-speedy EPA has worked out a deal with manufacturers to phase it out by, uh, 2015.)

So which risk is riskier—a high fat diet or potential chemical toxicity? Well, it’s actually pretty easy to avoid both by switching to a properly seasoned cast iron skillet. An old-fashioned Lodge pan is perfect for cooking pretty much everything—including omelets. New York Times food writer Marian Burros is a fan as well—after hearing the bad news about Teflon, she interviewed a bunch of chefs and then ran an awesome Consumer Reports-style test of her own to find a suitable alternative. She also came to the conclusion that applying a thin film of oil to a cast iron skillet produced a non-stick surface on par with Teflon. They last forever, too, and aren’t too hard to find in thrift shops and yard sales for a couple of bucks—a pretty sound investment considering all the health and environmental troubles you’ll be avoiding.  

Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in Plenty in May 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008