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Foam used in food containers feared as possible carcinogen

Styrofoam container in trash bin.
Styrofoam container in trash bin.Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A panel of 10 experts from the National Research Council had reaffirmed long held suspicions that styrene “may cause cancer.” The polystyrene polymer is widely used in plastic foam products used to store and serve food (such as styrofoam cups, and Chinese food take-out containers, etc.), and while the industry has maintained that it is safe, previous tests conducted by the National Toxicology Program reached the same conclusion just three years ago.

“I think it is important to keep in mind that this is a hazard assessment,” commented committee chairperson Dr. Jane Henney, former head of the FDA during the Clinton administration. “Our report says this chemical could be a problem, but a full risk-assessment on dose, exposure, quantification and further characterization of the potential danger would need to be done before one would think about regulation in this area.”

Although they were careful to skirt around calling the chemical a carcinogen outright, the fact that the panel did state that it found it to be a “reasonably anticipated” the pronouncement was lauded by the Great Neck (Long Island) Breast Cancer Coalition, and other advocates, including Grassroots Environmental Education of Port Washington, trying to ban styrene foam-based items from contact with food, especially hot liquids which they say can cause the polymer to “leach out.”

“Styrene is an endocrine disrupter (described as any chemical that apes estrogen) and one of the chemicals we have been concerned about in the fight against breast cancer,” stated coalition president Laura Weinberg.

In addition to being a possible cancer-causing agent, Grassroots has been fighting to get food servers to switch to paper cups and plates citing that the foam products, which do not disintegrate readily) have been polluting the environment, especially local waterways for years, posing an ever-growing threat to eco-systems throughout the nation.

Note: In response to the above report, Scott Lusk of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) would like to clarify that polystyrene and styrene are two different substances and to highlight federal research demonstrating polystyrene’s continued safe use in foodservice packaging:

“In light of the recent National Academy of Sciences review of styrene, it is important to point out that federal regulators have not changed their view that polystyrene is safe for foodservice packaging. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration, the agency charged with scientific review and approval of food contact applications, has determined for more than 50 years that polystyrene is safe for use in foodservice products. The European Commission/European Food Safety Authority and other regulatory agencies have reached similar conclusions.

He also stressed that “Polystyrene foodservice packaging has many advantages. It is a clean and affordable way to insulate food so that it stays fresher longer. For decades, federal regulatory bodies and researchers have concluded that there is no cause for concern from polystyrene products used to store and serve food.”