Is using polystyrene foam harmful?
Most Atlanta businesses use foam cups in their corporate break rooms, just like millions of businesses around the world. The takeout container preference for eateries in Atlanta is usually of the foam variety as well…
I’ve always preferred to use my own ceramic mugs at work and grudgingly take home Chinese or other takeout in polystyrene foam containers. I’d much rather use strong wax coated paper containers and cups instead!
It also makes me cringe to think that I used to reheat those same takeout containers in the microwave and that would melt the foam and probably leached into the food…
So how harmful is polystyrene foam?
Polystyrene has a long history of undergoing refinement but it was first discovered in 1839 by Eduard Simon at an apothecary in Berlin.
Simon was working with storax, the resin of the Turkish sweetgum tree Liquidambar orientalis, when he distilled an oily substance, a monomer which he named styrol.
Several days later, Simon found that the styrol had thickened, presumably from oxidation into a jelly which he named styrol oxide or in German Styroloxyd.
After some subsequent changes made to the foam, the Koppers Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, developed expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam in 1959, which is what we use today.
Polystyrene can be easily recycled but in some communities it is not collected in curbside recycling collection. The problem with not recycling is that discarded polystyrene does not biodegrade for hundreds of years and is resistant to biodegrading.
Because degradation of materials can create potentially harmful liquid and gaseous by-products that could contaminate groundwater and air, today’s landfills are designed to minimize contact with air and water which is required for degradation.
Polystyrene is made from petroleum and the scientific community has deemed it generally safe for food usage. However, not surprisingly, researchers found that polystyrene containers used for food packaging leaked their styrene oligomers into the food!
For instance, one Japanese study conducted on wild-type and AhR-null mice found that the styrene trimer, which the authors detected in cooked polystyrene container-packed instant foods, may alter thyroid hormone levels as well as harm our reproductive system.
Polystyrene contains the toxic substances Styrene and Benzene, suspected carcinogens and neurotoxins that are hazardous to humans. Hot foods, alcohol, oils, acidity and liquids in general start a partial breakdown of the styrofoam which we ingest and are harmful to our system.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency also advises: “Remove food from plastic wrap, freezer cartons, and/or Styrofoam trays before defrosting and cooking. They are not heat stable and could leak hazardous compounds from the container or plastic wrap to the food.”
Over 100 US and Canadian, as well as some European and Asian cities, have banned polystyrene food packaging as a result of the negative impacts to humans and the environment.
If containers you use for the storage of food are not labeled “Microwave-safe,” then they are probably not!
A general rule of thumb for Polystyrene or Styrofoam containers is to minimize their use as much as possible!