Q: The Teflon coating is coming off my pan. Is it still safe to use? How do I dispose of it safely?
A: I have two words for you. Ditch. It. Yes, it's oh so convenient for making the perfect egg that slides off the pan and onto your plate, but the chemical used to make the coating is now embedding itself in humans and wildlife. Pretty much every North American has some PFOA and PFOS (two of the components of Teflon and Scotchguard) in them. The health impacts are still inconclusive, but fumes from overheated pans have been known to kill pet birds, and studies have linked it to the death of baby rats, and to thyroid problems and various cancers. Maybe that's not so surprising considering we've surrounded ourselves with the stuff, putting it on cookware, carpets, khakis and burger wrappers. But what about the poor polar bears? They never make microwave popcorn, yet the chemicals are turning up in their systems as well as most other wildlife's at alarming levels.
Regulatory bodies are known for moving slowly on these things, so we could be waiting years before Health Canada's investigators come to any conclusions on the non-stick coating. The Environmental Protection Agency south of the border has recently asked major corporate users of the substance to ditch the compound entirely by 2015.
No government body has told us to ditch our Teflon-coated woks, but environmentalists are saying there's no better time than the present to remove the chemical from your life.
Unfortunately, Toronto has no program in place for the safe disposal of Teflon-coated pans. You can't even recycle non-coated cast iron or stainless steel cookware (although this will be changing in the near future). The city just says you should toss it out with your regular trash. But can't it seep out in landfill? What if it gets into groundwater? Right now it's your only choice.
Q: Is all plastic wrap really bad? I still use it on rare occasions.
A: Peek into most fridges and people are wrapping everything in thin, stretchy plastic sheaths: cheese, meat, dip, carrot sticks, last night's casserole - you name it. Can you imagine the excitement in 1950's homes when Dow first introduced the ultra-clingy polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) film Saran Wrap? It stuck to everything: bowls, pots, especially itself. The stuff even had patriotic roots, having first been sprayed on fighter planes during the war to protect them against salty sea spray.
For years, most plastic wrap was either PVDC or PVC. And, as you've read here before, PVC is the most toxic of plastics. It emits dangerous dioxins when being made and when it's incinerated. On its own it's quite rigid, so softening chemicals called phthalates are added to make it nice and pliable so you can cover your bowl of leftover pancake batter.
As much as a third of PVC and 10 per cent of PVDC wrap can be made up of plasticizers, which have been found to drift into food. In fact, in the late 90s Consumer Reports tested various grocery store cheeses and found that those that came in manufacturer's plastic wrapping or individually wrapped slices tested negative, but those wrapped in PVC cling wrap had very high levels of the plasticizer DEHA (found to cause developmental problems in rats).
Major manufacturers like Glad and Saran have generally switched to less controversial low-density polyethylene (or LDPE). It's less clingy but phthalate-free. Saran Premium Wrap is now also chlorine-free as part of "the company's commitment to use more environmentally responsible ingredients in our products."
Though these manufacturers say their products are microwave-safe, Saran does say its wrap can melt if it touches fat (bacon) or sugar (pastry), which is kind of creepy.
And even if you're using less environmentally damaging plastics like LDPE, note that all plastics have eco ramifications in terms of their production. Plus, they don't really biodegrade, and plastic wrap isn't recyclable.
Try to find alternatives whenever possible. A piece of fruit sliced in half can be put face down on a plate. Plates can also be used to cover bowls or other dishes. Plasticizer-free Tupperware, Gladware or Ziploc containers are better than plastic wrap, since they can be washed and reused. Pyrex, Ikea and Crate and Barrel carry all kinds of glass storage containers in different shapes and sizes.
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