The Health Hazards of Styrofoam

Up until the mid 1980s, restaurants served hot coffee and tea in Styrofoam cups. McDonalds packaged their sandwiches in Styrofoam containers. Environmental worries about Styrofoam largely led to its reduction in such use and toward the current trend of using paper cups and wrappers, but some health concerns about Styrofoam arose, as well. Since Styrofoam’s use as food packaging is less now, we don’t hear as much about health hazards, but there is some disturbing information about its danger.

What is Styrofoam

Styrofoam is actually a brand name and is the most commonly used name for polystyrene. Its primary ingredient, styrene, is the danger. It is used in carpets, insulation and general packing materials. People most often come in contact with it, however, as a product of tobacco smoke.

Manufacturing hazards

Workers in plants that are exposed to styrene may inhale the substance and so experience nervous system difficulties. According to the EPA, these include fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and problems with coordination. Those who work with manufacturing rubber and plastic are most often exposed to air-borne styrene.


Food products placed in containers may become contaminated with styrene according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Eating or drinking such contaminated products can lead to anything from general gastrointestinal difficulties to liver and kidney damage.


Some studies even suggest styrene is a carcinogen, increasing the risk of cancers in those exposed. Leukemia and lymphoma are of particular concern to the EPA, which lists styrene as “a probable human carcinogen.”


Certainly, a cup of tea in a Styrofoam cup every now and then is not going to harm most people. But the cautionary information from the EPA suggests that the move to paper cups and wraps for food and drink was important not only for environmental health but for safety, as well.


EPA Styrene Summary.

“Styrene Report.” Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

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