Every time a town or city tries to ban take-out styrene (styrofoam) containers there’s pushback, but research provides fresh evidence about this problematic, unnecessary material.
The US National Toxicology Program has decided to list styrene conservatively as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen." We’ve long known that cancer rates are higher in and near styrene manufacturing plants, but it can also leach into hot foods from cups, plates and clamshells.
Scientists say the listing is supported by "limited but credible" evidence of carcinogenicity in human studies, "sufficient" evidence from animal studies, and "convincing relevant information" in studies that observe DNA damage in human cells exposed to styrene.
It’s also linked to vision and hearing loss, impaired memory and concentration, and nervous system issues. Then there’s the environmental problem – it never degrades and is rarely recycled.
The substance is of interest because it’s so widespread. Besides being the key ingredient in styrofoam, it’s used to make a raft of products: plastic containers (look for #6 on the bottom), refrigerator lining, insulation, carpet, latex paint, synthetic rubber and construction materials like pipes, fittings, and lighting fixtures. You can also be exposed to it from cigarette smoke, vehicle exhaust and as a by-product of incinerating products that contain it.
One of NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s last actions was to ban Styrofoam – which the city tosses out 23,000 tons of each year – and Seattle did so years ago. Recently,
Portland, Maine followed suit. McDonald’s is finally phasing it out and Dell ditched it in favor of mushroom packaging awhile ago. Leading sports arenas no longer allow it; six of the biggest public school districts in the US are transitioning to compostable dishware and hospitals are also moving away from it.
Not surprisingly, the ubiquitous product remains common because of industry lobbying.
Learn more about styrene: