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Home Detox: Are Nonstick Cookware and Stain-Repellent Fabrics Dangerous?

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The New Year, traditionally associated with detox and cleanup, is a good time to easily reduce our exposure to toxic chemicals in household products, and -- by not buying these products -- to reduce their manufacture and the chemicals' escape into our air, water and, well, everywhere.

Yesterday I talked about indoor air on "Whole Living" with host Terri Trespicio on Martha Stewart Sirius Radio 112. It's the perfect time of year, because it’s a good idea to cut back on sources of toxic fumes during the winter, when we spend so much time inside.

And one of these sources that we discussed at length? It could be hiding in your pots and pans -- or in your bed sheets!

What do nonstick cookware and stain-repelling fabrics have in common?
They’re coated with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), popularly known as the “Teflon chemical,” although it also comes under many other brand and generic names, including Silverstone. In clothing and bedding, this material is referred to as stain- or water-repellent.

When exposed to high heats, these nonstick pans have been found to release some unhealthy fumes. At a scorchy 554 degrees Fahrenheit, the pans can give off gases that produce flu-like symptoms. At 680 degrees, the fumes have killed pet birds.

Should we panic?
No; panic is impractical, to say the least. Decisions about risk avoidance  depend on your lifestyle–and whether you’re in the market for a new pan or set of sheets.

As a writer, I get distracted and have been known to scorch a pan or two when I’ve wandered back to my computer while making dinner. And because of my sensitive skin, I’ve found that treated fabrics make me itch. Thus, it makes good sense for me to avoid PTFE-coated nonstick pans and finished fabrics. Besides, who cares if sheets are wrinkled, so long as they’re clean?

Are we going to inhale PTFE if we sleep on bedding coated with water/stain/moth repellants?  Probably not, but these finishes can “offgass” other toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs), as I wrote about in a recent Econundrum column. (Also, check out our Econundrums on organic bedding in the March issue of Whole Living, on newsstands now!)

There’s a broader, underlying problem sticking to these nonstick coatings, which is the pervasive presence, in our environment (including drinking water and our bodies) of a family of chemicals used to manufacture them. They are known as perfluorochemicals (PFCs), and they have produced neurotoxic effects, including developmental and learning problems, in animal tests.

A recent report on PFC exposure in people found that PFCs raised the risk of ADHD attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder  in adolescents.

What to do? Choose safer products

COOKWARE
On today’s radio show, a listener called in asking for a list of green pans, which I’ve just refreshed and posted on my blog at GreenerPenny.com.

BEDDING
For sheets, organic and low-impact-dyed reduce your chances of a toxic encounter. Here’s a list. (Also check out this note on avoiding toxic fire-retardant chemicals in bedding -- also very important!)

Get more ways to green your kitchen, bedroom, and every other room in your house in our Green-Home Guide.

Mindy Pennybacker is Whole Living’s “Econundrums” columnist. See her answers to reader questions and ask your own here.  She is also editor of GreenerPenny.com and author of Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices.

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