Week of 3/26/2006

Dear EarthTalk: With the recent hubbub over the chemicals used to make Teflon linked to health problems, what is the safest cookware to use in preparing meals for my family?

—Wyatt Walley, Needham, MA

When the health risks associated with making Teflon first came to light last year, many cooks trashed their non-stick cookware and went back to using their old stainless steel pots and pans. But what many people didn’t realize was that even stainless steel is not immune to controversy regarding health impacts.

In fact, stainless steel is really a mixture of several different metals, including nickel, chromium and molybdenum, all of which can trickle into foods. However, unless your stainless steel cookware is dinged and pitted, the amount of metals likely to get into your food is negligible.

These days, many health conscious cooks are turning to anodized aluminum cookware as a safer alternative. The electro-chemical anodizing process locks in the cookware’s base metal, aluminum, so that it can’t get into food, and makes for what many cooks consider an ideal non-stick and scratch-resistant cooking surface. Calphalon is the leading manufacturer of anodized aluminum cookware, but newer offerings from All Clad (endorsed by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse) and others are coming on strong.

Another good choice is that old standby, cast iron, which is known for its durability and even heat distribution. Cast iron cookware can also help ensure that eaters in your house get enough iron—which the body needs to produce red blood cells—as it seeps off the cookware into food in small amounts. Unlike the metals that can come off of some other types of pots and pans, iron is considered a healthy food additive by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Consumers should beware, though, that most cast iron cookware needs to be seasoned after each use and as such is not as worry-free as other alternatives. Lodge Manufacturing is the leading American producer of cast iron cookware.

For those who like the feel and heat distribution properties of cast iron but dread the seasoning process, ceramic enameled cookware from Le Creuset, World Cuisine and others is a good choice. The smooth and colorful enamel is dishwasher-friendly and somewhat non-stick, and covers the entire surface of such cookware to minimize clean-up headaches. One other surface favored by chefs for sauces and sautés is copper, which excels at quick warm-ups and even heat distribution. Since copper can leak into food in large amounts when heated, the cooking surfaces are usually lined with tin or stainless steel.

But if you’re concerned about the build-up of solid waste in our landfills, don’t trash your non-stick cookware just yet. According to DuPont, the finished product of Teflon does not contain any of the production-process chemicals linked to health problems in factory workers. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that ingesting small particles of Teflon flaked off into food is not known to cause any health maladies. With proper use and care, such pots and pan—which constitute more than half of all cookware sales in the U.S.—should be safe to use for years to come.

CONTACTS: Calphalon, www.calphalon.com; All-Clad, www.allclad.com, Lodge Manufacturing, www.lodgemfg.com; Le Creuset, www.lecreuset.com; World Cuisine, www.world-cuisine.com.

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that gas-powered lawn mowers, despite their small engine size, actually pollute as much as cars. If this is true, is there a greener way to cut my grass?

—Jon Haufe, Seattle, WA

Reports about those noxious fumes emitted from gasoline lawn mowers are indeed true. A Swedish study conducted in 2001 concluded, "Air pollution from cutting grass for an hour with a gasoline powered lawn mower is about the same as that from a 100 mile automobile ride." Meanwhile, the 54 million Americans mowing their lawns each weekend with gas-powered mowers may be contributing as much as five percent of the nation’s air pollution, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The problem is that small engines emit disproportionately large amounts of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides that contribute to smog. The human health effects of smog-laden air are well known, and include inflammation and damage to lungs, increased risk of asthma attacks, and lowered levels of oxygen in the bloodstream, which can aggravate heart conditions.

Fortunately, the EPA is now phasing in new emissions standards for gas mower engines that will result in a 32 percent smog reduction for all models made starting in 2007. And with even more stringent standards slated to go into effect soon in California, environmental leaders are hoping that the old adage for automobile trends ("as goes California, so goes the nation") will soon apply to lawn mowers too.

But even with such progress, gas power is not the only option. Eco-conscious consumers looking for a new mower should consider, among other options, any of the electric models now available. The easy part is the price, as many models cost less than $200. The trade-off is that they only work for small lawns and must be tethered to a power outlet during use. Also, going electric is not necessarily a way to reduce pollution overall. According to Consumer Reports, "Achieving a net environmental savings from switching to electric mowers depends on the efficiency of the power plant" from where the electricity originates.

If money is not an issue, the $2,500 solar-powered "auto mower" from Husqvarna can’t be beat for both eco-friendliness and convenience. It wanders unattended around any level lawn, its collision sensors carefully avoiding contact with anything but the grass itself. While it is currently not available directly in the U.S., some Husqvarna dealers are willing to special order it from Sweden where it is manufactured.

Another green option, and a much more affordable one, is the Solar Powered Mulching Mower from Gaiam, which is in essence a cordless electric Black & Decker mower modified with a small solar array to turn sunlight into power. The battery on the $795 mower can also be charged by simply plugging it in.

Of course, the greenest choice of all is the mower that runs on three square meals a day and a good exercise regimen: the venerable human-powered reel mower. The most popular choices are from American Lawn Mower, which makes nine models including a child-size. They can be found at retailers like Ace Hardware and Target (and at local hardware stores) and in catalogs like Real Goods and Smith & Hawken.

CONTACTS: Husqvarna, www.husqvarna.com; Gaiam, www.gaiam.com; American Lawn Mower, www.reelin.com.