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Stuff about Styrofoam – Is it a Carcinogen?

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It’s the stuff swimming pool "noodles" are made of… the stuff many coffee and drink cups found in workplace, cafeterias, restaurants, schools, churches, hospitals and nursing homes are made of… It is the stuff your take-out lunch is kept warm or cold in and the stuff in which your doggie-bag left-overs are transported home. It is the principle stuff of disposable packaging. It floats…it breaks into infinitesimal parts… very slowly biodegrades. It’s been around since the 1940s and only NOW, we are hearing it might be unsafe stuff in some ways.

Styrofoam was a wonder when it was first discovered. It bears the trademark of The Dow Chemical Company for closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam. Make no mistake about it, plastic polystyrene is amazing stuff. The Coast Guard lifesavers used it first for life rafts. It is frequently blown into the walls of homes and buildings for use as insulation. But, now the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) is adding styrene to its list of substances "reasonably anticipated" to cause cancer. And its addition to the list of substances is causing some understandable conflict.

The Environmental Working Group, Washington, DC (www.EWG.org), is telling us we shouldn’t microwave and eat or drink from it, because the styrene chemicals leach out into the food or drink… and may contribute to causing cancer. "Trace amounts of styrene, as well as various chemical additives in polystyrene, migrate into food—particularly when liquids are hot," Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., EWG senior scientist, says.

On August 9, 2011, the Styrene Information and Research Center issued the following statement: "The federal government is scheduled to file on August 26 the administrative record for the National Toxicology Program (NTP) actions with regard to the listing of styrene in the 12th Report on Carcinogens. But it is unclear to the Styrene Information and Research Center (SIRC) what, in the government’s view, constitutes that administrative record. For that reason, SIRC has served on the U.S. Department of Justice a "Request for the Production of Documents" with the goal of ensuring that all of the materials relevant to the NTP’s proceedings and related Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Control actions are part of the docket before the court."

Document productions take time, so it could be awhile before we have to give up our cups and coolers, but, in the meantime, the EWG offers some suggestions you may wish to incorporate in your daily routine before we totally say so long to Styrofoam:

  • Minimize eating or drinking from Styrofoam containers—paper plates, paper cups, real glassware and china, ceramic or stoneware dishes are better and hopefully, they’re toxin-free.

  • Don’t microwave Styrofoam containers. Reheat leftovers in glass, ceramic or stoneware containers.

  • Don’t store food in Styrofoam containers.

  • In restaurants, you can ask if they have alternatives to Styrofoam containers.

  • Bring your own cup to the office and coffee shops that dispense beverages in Styrofoam—at least until we know for sure… if ever we will…

I guess we should just be grateful that it floats.