(click image above for high-res infographic)
Nonstick pans are a huge convenience when it comes to cooking. You don't need to spend forever scrubbing your pans and you can get away with using a lot less oil when you cook. But for all the good, there's some potential dangers that every cook should be aware of when it comes to nonstick.
Nonstick pans are coated with the synthetic polymer polytetrafluoroethylene - better known as Teflon®. What you may not know is that Teflon can release toxic fumes when heated above certain temperatures. One of the gases, perflurooctanoic acid (PFOA) aka C-8, has been linked to cancer and birth defects in lab studies, and is suspected to be the culprit behind the birth defects found in children of DuPont (maker of Teflon) employees who were exposed to the substance.
The general rule of thumb is that you should never heat Teflon-coated cookware over 500°F (260 °C), but the gases released at even 464°F (240°C) have been shown to kill birds. Exposure to the fumes can cause flu-like symptoms, known as Polymer fume fever or "Teflon flu." This is another reason why it's really important to know what the heat dial on your stove really translates to in temperatures. Stove temperatures vary depending on kind and model, but High heat is typically around 500°F. An easy way to check is if you use an infrared thermometer. For my stove, I usually use a max of Medium-High heat with nonstick pans.
For a visualization of noteworthy temperatures related to Teflon as well as a comparison to common cooking temperatures, check out the full infographic above. Note that the cooking temperatures shown are those more commonly used in recipes and geared towards home cooks (professional cooking appliances can go to much higher temperatures). The stove temperature ranges are also estimates based on home appliances.
In making this visualization, I realized that most cooking methods are safe to do with non-stick cookware, but I'll stick to my stainless-steel pans when trying to do high-heat searing. I'll also never buy a non-stick wok, and I regret the time that I substituted a non-stick cookie tray for a broiler pan. Hope you find this graphic helpful too!
To read more about this topic, check out the Environmental Working Group, Medical News Today, or National Geographic's Green Guide.