By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Keeping it greener in the kitchen can mean many things. You may be using more fresh vegetables or local foods, literally adding greens. Perhaps you’ve switched to greener cleaners that don’t use bleach or ammonia.

Now it’s time to take stock of your cookware.

Stainless steel pans, safer than synthetic non-stick finishes.

If you’re still using pans coated with Teflon or a similar nonstick surface, you’ll want to get familiar with — and then get away from — the polytetrafluoroetheylenes (PTFE) used in this old-style technology. When heated to high temperatures pans coated with this substance release fumes into the air that contain hazardous compounds called perfluorinated chemicals or PFCs.

PFC fumes have killed pet birds, within minutes of exposure, and studies show they have a negative effect on the human respiratory and reproductive systems as well. They also raise the risk of certain cancers.

Teflon pans: Not so hot at high heat

The Environmental Working Group says this about the fumes released by non-stick coatings:

“Toxic fumes from the non-stick polymer-coated pans heated at high temperatures may kill pet birds and cause people to develop flu-like symptoms (called “Teflon Flu” or, as scientists describe it, “Polymer fume fever”).”

Despite the dangerous nature of the fumes these pans can produce, it’s important to remember  that Teflon-coated pans used at low temperatures have not been shown to be harmful.  So you can continue to use your non-stick pans for sauteing, say. But you may want to advise everyone using the kitchen to keep the non-stick pans on low heat.

Studies have shown that the PTFE coating begin to degrade and dangerous fumes can be produced at around 400 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature that could be reached when searing meat on a cooktop or if an empty pan is accidentally left on a burner. (Here’s a chart showing how nonstick pans produced unhealthy fumes at common cooking temperatures in the 300 and 400-degree range.)

On a brighter note, your non-stick pan is not a hazard at room temperature and even if the pan is scratched, the particles that flake off the surface are not toxic, because “solid PTFE flakes are inert,” according to the EWG.

So you don’t need to rush your Teflon-coated pan to the trash or call a HazMat team, just run the exhaust fan when you’re using it, and avoid letting it overheat.

When it’s time to retire that pan, you’ll discover there’s a marketplace bursting with alternatives with safer finishes.  We’ll get to those in a minute.

First, the rest of the bad news:  PFCs are insidious in the wider environment, where some forms never break down. Their persistence in water, soil and air and humans has confounded and alarmed public health advocates. Here’s the EWG on the environmental effects of the PFCs generated by the production of Teflon and other non-stick products:

“PFCs have been found in nearly all Americans tested by federal public health officials. Chemicals from this family are associated with smaller birth weight and size in newborn babies, elevated cholesterol, abnormal thyroid hormone levels, liver inflammation and weakened immune defense against disease.”

Pollution from PFCs and their cousin chemicals has resulted in major lawsuits and at least one significant government penalty against DuPont the maker of Teflon and other slick coatings, which have been blamed for causing pollution both during production site and household use.

A recent study found that PFCs in kids may adversely affect the efficacy of vaccines, raising a question about whether children with PFCs in their bloodstream were protected by routine vaccinations.

In 2005, DuPont agreed to pay a $100 million civil settlement and supply clean water to West Virginia and Ohio residents who claimed harm* from years of industrial emissions at DuPont’s nearby Washington Plant in Parkersburg, W.Va.. The company never conceded wrongdoing, but the settlement has funded  continuing research into the negative health effects of PFCs and PFOAs (perfluorooctainoic acids, a cousin to PTFE, used to make non-stick coatings for packaging such as popcorn bags and pizza boxes).

The research panel recently announced that there appears to be a “probable link” between PFOA pollution and testicular and kidney cancers, but not other cancers that were reviewed.

DuPont has announced it will be phasing out PFOAs from packaging by 2015, as the EPA has suggested it should.

Safer Cookware

Ready for new pans?  You are in luck! Concerns about PFCs have resulted in a new generation of stainless steel cookware by all the major makers, like Cuisinart, Calphalon and Martha Stewart. Smaller labels, such as American Kitchen in Wisconsin, also make stainless steel pans, and unlike their larger competitors still manufacture them in America.

Stainless cookware sets are relatively affordable, especially considering their durability, and many are just like what professional chefs prefer to use because they heat evenly and leave no chemical residue.

If you’re a serious home chef, look for a heavy stainless steel pan (the smaller the gauge number the heavier the steel). Next, get some healthy oils — like olive oil, grapeseed or canola — with which to cook.

Still worried that your omelets won’t slip off the griddle like they did with Teflon? There are other options:  Find an enamel or ceramic coated pan. These provide a slippery surface based on glass or ceramic that’s been baked onto the pan. Or go for good old-fashioned iron cookware. Iron pans, seasoned properly, have worked for generations. They’re long-lasting and offer a bonus of imparting iron into food, making this the only cookware with the ability to fortify your entree.

A third class of pan that’s emerged to replace PFC varieties are those that are claiming to have new “green” nonstick surfaces. Cook’s Illustrated tested some of these purportedly greener, non-stick alternatives three years ago, and was mostly unimpressed with their performance. Their experts were disappointed with the performance of ceramic-coated pans and those pans that presented the slickest cooking surface, while PFOA-free, still used PTFEs, the very chemical that turns to a dangerous gas at high heats. How green is that, asked Cook’s, answering their own question: “Not very.”

Note: Look for labels that say pans are PFTE- and PFOA-free.

EWG hasn’t endorsed these new surfaces, pending more investigation into their safety. The group does, however, support iron and stainless steel pans as safe and effective. The group commends stainless for its ability to brown foods and notes that both stainless and iron can withstand high oven temperatures (if you plan to use them in the oven, avoid plastic coated handles).

These pans have different operating rules. But with a little finessing they can cook eggs that will slide right onto the plate, sans air pollution.

*An EPA 2009 update on the settlement with DuPont shows that blood testing of residents living near the Parkersburg plant revealed they have five times the level of PFOAs in their bloodstream as average Americans. PFOAs have a half-life of 3.8 years in the human body, so levels of those affected by plant pollution are expected to drop as DuPont supplies them with cleaner water via new wells, filtration or connections to safer water systems.