Eggs Beating Against the Current

a look into the safety of non-stick cookware

For those of us who find putting around a messy kitchen after a long day to be cathartic, more traditional pots and pans such as cast iron, stainless steel and pure ceramic are preferred because they are flanked by tradition and the results do not disappoint. Despite this beloved ritual, we are also people, existing in the actual world; adhering to the specific processes and nuances of heating and cleaning each traditional pan as a labor of love, yet labor, nonetheless. If I choose to put healthy food onto a plate after a long day, then I’m going to ensure that my cleanup is as painless as possible and use a nonstick skillet.

Take my house, as a case study, where eggs are our main source of protein. Our family motto should probably be, “Add an egg on it.” My husband and I both commute by bike, so we need a quick, clean, power-punch of protein beforehand. It is eggs in the morning. As residents of Texas, where one does not aspire to stand over a burner for ten months out of the year, dinner is often “hash,” meaning I’ll find whatever rogue vegetables I have — I’ll roast ’em — and put a fried egg on top. Pasta? Put an egg on top. Eggs in the morning and eggs at night. In fact, three years ago, we found ourselves in the typical whirlwind that comes with a very sudden, cross-country move over the holidays. I survived on repeating the mantra, “Huevos rancheros, por favor?” (This is real. I think I ugly cried ugly as I chanted this onto the shoulder of very kind, patient friends). On Christmas Eve, as the local radio played “Pretty Paper” by Willie Nelson and our U-Haul slowly sauntered off I-35 into Austin, imagine my surprise as I spotted food trucks advertising, “breakfast tacos!” You want to know what the main ingredient of breakfast tacos are?! It was a Christmas MIRACLE! We were going to be O-KAY! This is a slightly roundabout way of saying that our household likes eggs. And while nonstick surfaces are optimal in cooking these little packages of perfect fuel, thanks to the egg’s divinely designed composition of fat and protein and “charged aminos,” it hastens the lifespan of your pan (Chowhound n.d.).

This cookware begins to chip and flake, seemingly by simply looking at it. Once a year, after the pan has reached beyond the end of its life, I’ll begrudgingly replace it. This is truly a conundrum — because I dislike producing waste only slightly more than I dislike when my breakfast routine descends into an environmental risk rabbit hole. After years of stovetop mental gymnastics, some time has been submitted into the investigation of traditional nonstick (commonly referred to using the brand name, Teflon) and newer, ceramic surface products in the consumer market. Unsurprisingly, manufacturers of these food contact materials (FCM) have a long history of perpetuating confusion and constructing faux fixes regarding their proprietary property.

First up, Teflon. Teflon is the brand name used for the most common nonstick surfaces. Prior to 2013, the primary concern in FCM such as Teflon products was Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and related chemicals. During the mid-20th century, PFOA found its way into industrial workplaces and common household items such as cosmetics, food packaging, cleaning products, fabric protection sprays and shampoos (Vaughn, Winquist, and Steenland 2013). Ironically, news reels reporting on the debate of PFOA probably shared alternating spots on the nightly news reporting on the debate surrounding the nutrition debate of eggs as the safety and nutrition of both, respectively, have been debated for decades. Companies relied on PFOA to act as an emulsifier that allowed the Teflon coating itself, or Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), to be melted, evenly distributed and then stabilized over the surface of the FCM. PFOAs are bioaccumulates, meaning they are chemicals that do not degrade within soils as well as tissues of living organisms, therefore they present threats to health and environments for many years succeeding the exposure event.

After much skepticism that dates back to the 1970’s and numerous lawsuits, in 2006 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) kindly “invited” companies using PFOA to phase out the number of manufactured non-stick products they produced and eventually eliminated them from products and emissions by 2015 by way of the PFOA Stewardship Program (US EPA 2015). There are glaring concerns with this “fix.” One, this invitation was only extended based on the PFOA products manufactured within the United States, and as we are all aware, products stamps with “Made in USA” are very hard to come by. This means that FCMs that are manufactured and then imported into the United States are still permitted to contain PFOAs. The second concern does not come as a surprise as much as it serves to cement the overarching principle that the EPA did not ban a proprietary process that was known via decades of peer reviewed science to cause health effects in humans. This “wink and a handshake” behavior means that the same agency that is theoretically designed to serve and protect us, set the stage for PFOA’s successor to be harmful still, yet greenwashed to veil the consumer. Many products have packaging that tout, a “Made in USA, PFOA Free” sticker. This may be misleading. Since the 2015 omission of PFOA as a utilized emulsifier, there is a slight increase in conversation that PFOA may not be the single toxic substance within PTFE surfaces. In fact, very few studies were conducted that extracted PFOA alone from the cookware (Sajid and Ilyas 2017).

Because the manufacturers continue to benefit from collective confusion, we look elsewhere; one very interesting study (and conveniently another egg parallel that I’m pushing so hard for!) sought to understand why PTFE coated lightbulbs that were used to luminate a poultry facility found a very high rate in chick mortality. Within 24 hours of placement (one lightbulb per pen), the mortality rate of the chick population was 4% and with a second set of chicks, at the 6 week mark, the mortality rate was 11% (Boucher, Ehmler, and Bermudez 2000). It was concluded that the gases created within the heat lamps were identified as the problem. One must assume that the chicks were not warming under a lamp that reached temperatures of 400°C, therefore hazards must remain at relatively “normal” heat. In addition, researchers from Fraunhofer-Institute in Germany confirmed that the chemicals comprised to produce PTFE FCMs do, in fact, degrade easily. Further, the researchers posit that the chemical within them that is most worrisome to human exposure is perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids (PFCA) (Schlummer et al. 2015). PFCAs are a long chain compound that when degraded, or exposed to high heat, releases PFOA within products that still contain it (D’eon and Mabury 2007). PFOA is a toxicant with documentation to cement its impacts on human exposure the safety of PFCAs without the addition of PFOAs are still largely unknown,

“Saturated and unsaturated aldehydes have well-documented toxicity and carcinogenic activity (45). Due to their inherent reactivity, exposure to these transient metabolites is likely of greater toxicological concern than exposure to PFCAs alone” (D’eon and Mabury 2007).

Meaning, in the eyes of researchers, establishing the safety of PFCA without the presence of PFOA, has been a relatively low priority. In addition to the potential hazards of PTFE as a standalone product, there is some concern regarding the product used to replace PFOA. PFOA has simply been replaced by other Perfluoroalkoxy alkanes (PFA) such as GenX — a product of Chemours (a company now under Dupont). While scientists are satisfied with the omission of PFOA within the manufacturing processes in the United States, there is not conclusive evidence that PTFO is the stand-alone concern within PTFE products. The jury is still out! Therefore, we beat on — like [eggs] against the current –

Understandably, consumers have grown weary of the traditional nonstick surfaces, and have purchased alternative non-stick products such as ceramic non-stick cookware. My egg-pan, as it is referred to in the house, is on a rotation of a ceramic surfaced-skillet. Yet, as before-mentioned, their lifespan is short, and even though it is promoted as a “green” product, I am skeptical. The word ceramic is simply defined as an object that is “hardened by heat.” Ceramic surfaces are like the traditional nonstick surfaces in that they begin as anodized aluminum, and then are coated with inorganic minerals such as oxygen and silicon (Ceramic Coated Cookware Safety Secrets That No One Will Tell You! — n.d.). If companies stopped here, it would remain a safe FCM. However, the additives beyond the inorganic minerals is what raises concern. The lack of transparency and regulation provides the possibility that ceramic surfaces could be just as toxic, due to the lack of research that is inherent of a new product. This consensus echoed to be true as I sought after the opinion of researchers. Not only are many more studies and literature needed, but advancements in the product itself. In terms of the safety of ceramic FCM, the conclusion by the little literature available determines that it is too early to tell.

So, what are we going to do about [those tossed salad and scramble eggs] — err, any other Frasier super-fans out there? No? Okay, I’m done with the egg puns. In all seriousness, what are we, as discerning consumers, going to do about our nonstick surfaces? First, we can keep an eye out for better products. Second, we can take steps to reduce the rate of deterioration by washing it sparingly. I treat mine similarly to a cast iron pan, or beloved ceramic stoneware: I do not wash the pan daily. I wash it under soap and water about few days but in the interim, I wipe the residual egg and oil out with a clean washcloth and hang it up, away from potential abrasive activity. More and more, you’ll see that the packaging now says these items are both dishwasher safe and safe to use with metal utensils, yet I would advise from using both things. One may decide to omit nonstick surfaces from their kitchens entirely.

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