Cooking with damaged nonstick pans may release millions of micro and nanoplastics, according to new Australian research.
The study, a collaboration between Newcastle and Flinders University researchers, used special microscopes that allow them to detect the number of plastic particles that come off degraded pans during cooking.
It may not be time to throw away your non-stick pans, but you ought to use them with care.Credit:Getty
They found that scratched nonstick coatings can release about 2.3 million microplastics (particles less than 5 millimetres in diameter) and nanoplastics (particles less than 1 micrometre in diameter).
And while the surfaces were purposefully scratched, co-author Dr Cheng Fang, from the University of Newcastle, says pans may not need to be scratched: “We estimate that thousands to millions of Teflon microplastics and nanoplastics might be released during [the] cooking process, depending on the use and cooking style/habit, pan/pot age/materials.”
How worried should we be?
Since their invention in 1954, people around the world have been using nonstick pans to cook their eggs, sauté sauces, and heat up leftovers. Their durability and frictionless surface, which makes them easy to cook with and easy to clean, have propelled their popularity and about half of all cookware sold today is nonstick.
Nonstick pans were mired in controversy in the early 2000s, when it was discovered that a chemical that caused cancer and birth defects was used to make the coating. These chemicals, known as PFOAs, were phased out by 2013.
Now many brands market their products as being ‘healthy’, ‘safe’ or ‘non-toxic’.
Teflon, the brand name for PolyTetraFluoroEthylene (or PTFE), which is used to make nonstick pans, is generally stable and non-toxic below about 260 degrees centigrade, says Professor Oliver Jones, the associate dean of the Biosciences and Food Technology Discipline at RMIT University.
Jones says that the complexity of the analysis used in the new study to look at how many particles “might” be released as well as the fact that it is the first time the method has been used like this, means firm conclusions cannot be drawn.
“At this stage the results should, in my opinion, be treated as preliminary,” he says.
“I personally think the current range of non-stick pans are safe. They have been in use for years, and we are all still here. I have them at home.”
Still, Jones does say that microplastics are a concern.
“They are everywhere, and we are not sure what effects they have,” he says. “Small particles that end up in food (if there were any) are likely to just pass through the human digestive system so while they might possibly, cause some inflammation in the gut, I don’t think they pose any direct health risk.”
The possibility that microplastics are absorbed during digestion and contain substances that are toxic is, he says, “a wholly separate area” not looked at in this paper.
Co-author on the paper, Dr Chris Gibson from Flinders Institute for NanoScale Science and Technology, explains that pieces of plastic this small can get into the bloodstream.
“There could be further human health complications further down the line. But the reality is, we need a lot more research,” he says, adding: “There’s no panic to be started here, but we need to know.”
Dr Thava Palanisami is from the Global Innovative Centre for Advanced Nanomaterials in the School of Engineering at The University of Newcastle.
Like Jones, Palanisami has concerns about the design of the study.
“[It] simulated the improper use by scratching not by cooking (normal use). If we scratch any plastic-coated materials, we will get millions of particles,” says Palanisami, who was not involved with the research. “Studies like this should be careful. It has to be done [using a] relevant scenario.”
The emission and ingestion of microplastics is however a worry.
“Microplastics are ubiquitous. We ingest, and inhale significant amounts every day. It is a concern and evidence is mounting,” he says.
Palanisami is also “absolutely concerned” about using nonstick pans. “Not only for microplastics, the proven, toxic, potential carcinogen is PFAS, directly emitted from non-stick pans. We should always use cast iron.”
Jones is more circumspect, reminding that the dose makes the poison and although he’s concerned about the possible effects of PFAS in the environment in general, no harmful effects have been proved at the concentrations most people are exposed to, particularly from food or frying pans.
Dr Fang acknowledges more work needs to be done to understand the risks and says plastics pose a problem on many fronts.
“Plastics contamination is everywhere and every of us should take responsibility, to reduce the use of plastic and recycle them, before the suitable replacement can be found,” says Fang, who recommends cast iron pans.
And while research is ongoing into the effects of microplastics in the human body, Gibson says he won’t stop using nonstick pans, but he will be more careful with them and avoid using metal utensils when cooking with them.
“I would still buy nonstick,” Gibson says. “But I would caution anyone to just be very careful when they’re using them. And once they get really old, replace them.”
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