Dear EarthTalk: I’ve read conflicting reports about the dangers of non-stick cookware. I have a set of older non-stick pans and am not sure if I need to replace them. Are they harmful to use, particularly if they have a few scratches? -- Miriam Jones, Montgomery, AL
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Non-stick cookware has been around since 1960s when the first Teflon-coated “Happy Pan” appeared on store shelves. Cooks and dishwashers have loved the pans ever since, given how easily they clean up since no food residues can stick to the slippery surface coating. The issue with non-stick cookware emerged when people began to worry about whether we were ingesting or breathing in trace amounts of the chemicals used into the production of the non-stick coating every time we ate a meal cooked in one of the pans. Indeed, 98 percent of Americans carry trace amounts of the main chemical of concern, PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid), around in our bloodstreams every day. This synthetic “fluorosurfactant” has been used in the manufacturing process of the coating on non-stick cookware and many other products (microwave popcorn bags, Gore-Tex jackets, medical implants, etc.) for decades.
“The EPA classifies PFOA as carcinogenic in animals, causing testicular, pancreatic, mammary and liver tumors in rats,” reports Melissa Breyer of the website Care2. “Workers exposed to PFOA have increased risks of dying from or needing treatment for cancers of the pancreas and male reproductive tract.” She adds that numerous studies have shown “that PFOA alters reproductive hormones in the male, causing increased levels of estrogen and abnormal testosterone regulation and that PFOA or chemicals that break down into PFOA damage the thyroid gland.”
Of course, the risk of exposure is very low for a person frying an egg at home than for a factory worker manufacturing PFOA. In 2007, Consumer Reports tested non-stick pans from several manufacturers and found harmful airborne emissions of PFOA to be minimal. “The highest level was about 100 times lower than levels that animal studies suggest are of concern for ongoing exposure to PFOA,” reported Consumer Reports. “With the aged pans, emissions were barely measurable.”
Regardless, most new non-stick cookware available today is not made using PFOA. In 2006 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) called on companies making non-stick coatings to voluntarily phase out their use of PFOA in cookware applications by 2015. Teflon and other non-stick pan brands will continue to be available, but consumers can rest assured that they are made with safer, less environmentally persistent processing agents than PFOA.
Meanwhile, other manufacturers are working on alternative forms of non-stick cookware using ceramic or silicone coatings. But a 2009 survey of eight such alternatives by Cook’s Illustrated did not give any of the new choices out there especially high marks. “Not a single one of these ‘green’ pans was without flaws,” said the magazine. “In some, delicate eggs burned, thin fish fillets stuck, and steak charred on the outside while remaining raw within. Others stained or transferred heat inconsistently.” Some pans accumulated the browned bits known as fond when steak was seared, indicating unwanted sticking power.
For those who would rather just avoid non-stick pots and pans altogether, tried and true cookware like cast iron, aluminum, copper and stainless steel each get high marks for even heat distribution and for holding up well at high temperatures and frequent use.
CONTACTS: Care2; Consumer Reports’ Kitchen Cookware; Cook’s Illustrated “Green Skillets”
Dear EarthTalk: I understand that many of the world’s fisheries are on the brink of collapse, “fished out,” to put it bluntly. How did this happen and what is being done about it?
-- Mariel LaPlante, New Orleans, LA
Livestock are the largest consumers of fresh water in the U.S.
Many of the world’s fisheries are indeed in crisis today due to years of overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, 57 percent of global fish populations are “fully exploited” and another 30 percent are ”overexploited or collapsed.” This leaves just 13 percent in the “non-fully-exploited” category, down from 40 percent less than four decades ago.
The non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports that many of the most popular fish, such as cod, snapper and tuna, are dangerously depleted yet continue to be overfished.
Fishing operations have only been able to satisfy rising demand for fish and shellfish in recent decades by using increasingly high-tech strategies like on-vessel refrigeration and processing, spotter planes and GPS satellites. Furthermore, says Matthew Roney of the non-profit Earth Policy Institute, “Industrial fishing fleets initially targeted the northern hemisphere’s coastal fish stocks, but then as stocks were depleted, they expanded progressively southward on average close to one degree of latitude annually since 1950.”
“The escalating pursuit of fish…has had heavy ecological consequences, including the alteration of marine food webs via a massive reduction in the populations of larger, longer-lived predatory fish such as tunas, cods and marlins,” reports Roney. In addition, he says, sophisticated fishing techniques aimed at maximizing catches, such as longlines and bottom-scraping trawls, kill large numbers of non-target species such as sea turtles, sharks and coral.
Roney is optimistic despite the trends. “In several well-studied regional systems, multiple fisheries have bounced back from collapse after adopting a combination of management measures,” he says. “These include restricting gear types, lowering the total allowable catch, dividing shares of the catch among fishers, and designating marine protected.” He cites an example of Kenyan communities removing beach seine nets and creating “no-take” zones leading to an increase in total fish, fish sizes and fishing income. And no-take reserves established around parts of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef led to a doubling of fish stocks and size within the boundaries of protected areas and larger populations throughout the region.
“It’s not too late to get our fishing practices back on track,” reports NRDC. “Using smart laws, policies, incentives, and market demand, we can help sustain fish populations at healthy levels for years to come.”
The decisions of policymakers play the key role in marine protection, but individual choices and consumer advocacy also make a difference. “We can all support sustainable fishing by wisely choosing which fish to eat, spreading the word to friends and family, and contacting our lawmakers to make sure they support responsible policies,” says NRDC. Consumers can learn which fish are OK to buy by consulting with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, available for free via the web and phone apps.