Each year, household air pollution from inefficient cooking practices kills close to 4 million people. This is mainly related to the use of solid fuels and kerosene in countries without a stable and widespread electricity supply. Household air pollution from these types of cooking causes a variety of health issues, including stroke, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer. And, if you think you’re immune because you use an electric stove, you’re not.
Non-stick oven coatings and indoor air quality
It’s not just non-stick pans that you need to worry about when you’re shopping for your eco-friendly kitchenware. Some ovens also have residues of insulation resin from the factory. These should be burnt off before you use the oven for cooking. This initial ‘burn-off’ can release toxic fumes that can kill pet birds and cause nausea, headaches, and breathing difficulties in humans, especially in vulnerable seniors and children.
Thankfully, Teflon-type coatings are not typically present in ovens, for the simple reason that these would degrade very rapidly at regular cooking temperatures. Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), the chemical used in Teflon, has a melting point of 620°F. Self-cleaning (pyrolytic) ovens can reach 950°F. As such, PTFE would simply melt. Any oven made with a PTFE coating would, therefore, be ruined by regular use, forcing companies to recall their products.
So, the presence of PTFE non-stick coatings in ovens isn’t something to be overly concerned about. That said, some accessories sold with ovens, such as drip-catching oven liners, may contain non-stick coatings. This is why user manuals often stipulate that these should be removed before using an oven’s self-cleaning mode. For safety, always check and follow these guidelines.
Are self-cleaning ovens safe?
Most self-cleaning ovens have a pyrolytic ground coat, with oven walls coated with heat- and acid-resistant porcelain enamel. At a temperature around 932 °F (500 °C), anything stuck to the wall or floor of the oven will turn to ash and release fumes. These fumes can contain a variety of nasty chemicals, and the ovens themselves are known to release acrolein and formaldehyde. Understandably, then, it’s a good idea to keep all members of the household, human and non-human, away from a self-cleaning oven and to ventilate the kitchen using extraction fans where possible. Or, ideally, don’t use this setting.
The debate over the merits of self-cleaning ovens is a complicated one. For some, the convenience trumps any concerns over the release of nasty gases and the excessive use of energy that goes into maintaining such high temperatures for several hours. However, some of the chemicals used to manually clean a regular oven are also downright nasty. These chemicals can release their own toxic fumes as you scrub away at stubborn, burnt-on food residues.
Buy a self-cleaning oven but clean it yourself
The best option might be to purchase a self-cleaning oven, but never use the self-cleaning mode. Why? Because these ovens are manufactured with far better insulation (and, therefore, better energy efficiency) than a standard oven. This insulation is necessary to reduce the possibility of fire, but has the added bonus of greater energy efficiency. I’ve already noted the key reason to not use the self-cleaning mode, but there’s another consideration too. Using this function may shorten the life of your oven or range, making it much less eco-friendly.
So, instead of relying on high heat to clean your oven, use natural cleaning products and a ‘steam clean’ at a lower temperature. Do this regularly to keep your oven in good condition. However you choose to clean your oven, the key thing is to do it regularly. Cleaning helps keep surfaces shiny, so they reflect heat back for optimal efficiency. Cleaning also helps avoid erosion of the oven interior that might affect performance. An oven that is cleaned regularly is less likely to need replacing, which is better for the environment (and your bank balance) overall.
It’s also worth noting that the same resin residue sometimes found in a new oven might also be present on glass-enamel cooktops. So, take take the same precautions as you would with a new oven: clean the surface before first use, ventilate the kitchen, and keep vulnerable members of the household out of the home until the fumes clear.
Indoor air pollution and cooking
The materials used in manufacturing a cooking appliance make a big difference to the chances of toxic fumes being released into our homes. However, the simple act of cooking, and the fuel source used, also matter for indoor air quality. Without adequate ventilation, cooking fumes and particulate matter are trapped in the home. This exposes the whole household to a range of potentially hazardous chemicals and compounds.
Electric coil burners in stoves, ovens, and toasters can release fine and ultrafine particles that can irritate lungs. Meanwhile, gas stoves and ovens generate nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and formaldehyde. Even the pilot light can be a source of nitrogen dioxide (R).
Burning organic matter when you fry, boil, or sauté food also releases acrolein, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and particulate matter (R). This makes a raw food diet start to look quite appealing! Radical dietary change isn’t the answer, though, and there’s no need to stop cooking entirely. Instead, prioritize a well-designed range hood to help clear indoor air pollution, whatever appliance you use. As we’ll see in a moment, switching your gas stove for an induction stove can also minimize fumes.
Do you need to do a ‘burn-off’ with a new oven?
If you’ve just bought a new stove, oven, or range, you might wonder if you should do an initial ‘burn-off’. This is very likely a good idea! New cooking appliances often harbor residues lingering from factory processes. Many times, the initial burn-off will result in some nasty fumes and smells, so make sure to ventilate the kitchen well and keep any vulnerable members of the household at a safe distance (typically outside, if possible). It’s also smart to clean the oven and/or stovetop before doing the initial burn-off as this can help remove residues to reduce fumes.
Depending on the type of range or oven you’ve purchased, you may choose to use the self-clean option. It’s always best to check the user manual for recommendations, however, as you may be fine just heating the oven to 500 degrees for 50 minutes or so. Be sure to remove racks, unless they are also self-clean racks.
In addition to opening all windows possible, using an effective ventilation hood, and using fans around the house, you might also want to use activated charcoal to absorb airborne toxins while doing a burn-off. Activated charcoal bonds chemically to some of the more noxious chemicals released from factory residues. Sprinkling baking soda on rugs and furniture can also help soak up odors. You can then vacuum up the baking soda after the burn-off smell has dissipated.
Final thoughts on what to watch out for when buying a new stove or oven
Ideally, you’ll be able to find an oven, range, or stovetop that doesn’t contain undesirable chemicals. This can be difficult in the U.S. due to a lack of stringent safety regulations. As such, it is helpful to choose products made by companies based in Europe. Safety checks are more robust in Europe and companies tend to be more eco-friendly as a whole.
To help, I’ve put together a quick list of relevant certifications to look for when buying a new stove or oven. And, if you’re wondering which is more energy efficient – gas, electric, or induction, I’ve done the math for you here. You can also read my recommendations for the most eco-friendly and safe ovens and stoves here: