Polystyrene Production Homepage

  • Environmental Impacts
  • Worker Safety

    Environmental Impacts

    The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research identified 57 chemical byproducts released during the combustion of polystyrene foam. The process of making polystyrene pollutes the air and creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste.

    McDonald's voluntarily stopped the use of CFCs (which destroy the ozone layer) as blowing agents (chemicals used to blow tiny holes in the plastic, making it moldable) in the beaded version of the foam in 1988. They replaced CFCs with Benzene and ethylene Both flammable and toxic, these two killers are the petroleum and natural gas products that go to make styrene, the base material for polystyrene foam.[1] The EPA identified ethylene and benzene, the chemical precursors to polystyrene as the 4th and 6th highest waste production processes respectively.[2] Benzene is a known carcinogen, and both are highly flammable.

    1. "Polystyrene Fact Sheet," Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, Los Angeles, California.
    2. Brian Lipsett, "Areas of Expertise Pertaining to McDonalds Corp."

    Worker Safety

  • Case Studies
    Styrene (vinyl benzene) is the feed stock used to manufacture polystyrene. A neurotoxin, Styrene impairs the central and peripheral nervous systems. Exposure to Styrene in the workplace has also been associated with chromosomal aberrations, so it is considered a mutagen. In a study of 12 breast milk samples from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana, 75% were contaminated with styrene amongst other hazardous chemicals.

    Recent studies of Styrene distribution in human tissue have startling results. Long term exposure (3.2 to 10 years) to small quantities of styrene (1 to 10 parts/million, whereas a person manufacturing polystyrene may receive 50 to 100 ppm over an 8 hr. period) cause a wide spectrum of adverse health effects including neurotoxic, hematological (low platelet and hemoglobin values), cytogenetic (chromosomal and cytogenic abnormalities) and carcinogenic effects. Neurotoxic effects include fatigue, nervousness, difficulty sleeping, poor performance on memory and stimuli response tests and nerve conduction velocity abnormalities. Other effects include low platelet and hemoglobin values, chromosomal and lymphatic abnormalities at levels below 50 ppm.[1]

    Neurotoxic damage is as serious if not more serious than carcinogenic impact. Chemicals like styrene are known to indiscriminately attack tissue and the nervous systems. With growing evidence that ailments like Parkinson's Disease are linked to man-made toxins,[2] the public should take all necessary steps to reduce exposure to neurotoxins. Parkinson's Disease may not often kill people, but this degenerative brain disorder will rob a person of intelligence and hamper speech, walking, and the ability to perform simple tasks. Therefore, it would appear wise to avoid using polystyrene products when consuming food and beverages.[1]

    Case Studies

    Women exposed to low concentrations of styrene vapors in the workplace are known to have a variety of neurotoxic and menstrual problems. A Russian study of 110 women exposed to styrene vapors at levels about 5 mg/m3 demonstrated menstrual disorders, particularly perturbations of the menstrual cycle and a hypermenorrhea (unusually heavy flow of menses during the menstrual cycle) syndrome. Styrene-exposed women often suffered from metabolic disturbances occurring during pregnancy.

    A 45-year old man exposed to styrene monomer vapors for a period of five years developed a burning sensation in the lower portion of his feet and a feeling of walking on inflated balloons of cotton. Upon examination, there was evidence of total demyelination, (destruction, removal or loss of the myelin sheath of nerves). Therefore, serious physical destruction to the nervous system occurred, leaving the nerves exposed without protection. The authors of the study concluded that "styrene affects the nervous system to a greater degree than formerly thought."[4]

    Another study of neurotoxicity of toluene and styrene notes that these "aromatic hydrocarbons have unsuspected long lasting neuological effects. The accumulation of these highly lipid-soluble materials in the lipid-rich tissues of the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves was apparently correlated with acute or chronic functional impairment of the nervous system.[5]

    1. George Baggett, "Styrene Migration Into Human Adipose Tissue."
    2. Eric Adler, "Zeroing in on what causes Parkinson's," The Kansas City Star, June 17, 1990, Section I, pages 5-6.
    3. N.S. Zlobina, A.S. Izjumova, and N.Ju. Ragul'e, "Effects of Low Styrene Concentrations On The Specific Functions of the Female Organism" (human and white rat), Gigiena truda i professional'nye sabolenavija, Moskva, USSR, December 1975, No. 12, pages 21-25.
    4. M. Behari, C. Choudhary, S. Roy, and M.C. Maheshwari, "Styrene Induced Peripheral Neuropathy," European Neurology, Vol. 25, No. 6, November 1986, pages 424-427.
    5. J.L. O'Donoghue, Neurotoxicity of Industrial and Commercial Chemicals: Vol. 2, CRC Press, Inc., Boca Raton, Florida, 1985, pages 127- 137.

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    Last modified: 4 Mar 1996