It has been reaffirmed by the National Research Council that the main chemical component of foam cups and other items in food service, may cause cancer.
A panel composed of 10 experts in toxicology, chemistry and medicine upheld the same finding as was released three years ago by the National Toxicology Program in its 12th Report on Carcinogens, that styrene could be ‘reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen’.
Dr Jane Henny, the chairperson of the research council’s committee of experts, said that it is important to bear in mind that this is a hazard assessment. She said that their report states that the chemical may be a problem, however, a full risk assessment will have to be undertaken before consideration of suitable regulation.
She said the panel’s ‘reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen’ term indicates that there is scientific which is suggestive of styrene causing cancer, but there may be other explanations, such as confounding factors, bias or chance.
The definition ‘known to be a carcinogen’ sets a higher bar because it indicates that there is overwhelming evidence and no element of doubt. Neither the toxicology programme nor the research council have used this definition.
Styrene is wide used in plastics and resins, but is most recognisable as polystyrene, which is generally used in plastic foam products.
For several years, leaders in the industry have insisted that styrene-based products, particularly those used in food services, are safe.
The council’s announcement was met with applause on Long Island, particularly from advocates who have been calling for styrene-based products to be banned.
The president of the Great Neck Breast Cancer Coalition, Laura Weinberg, said that styrene disrupts endocrine and is a product that raises huge concern in the breast cancer community. She said an endocrine disrupter is a chemical which mimics oestrogen and boosts cancer growth.
Other groups have asked for plastic foam not to make contact with food supply, particularly warm liquids, which they believe causes the leaching out of styrene.
Patti Wood, an executive director of Grassroots Environment Education, said that styrene is not only a potential carcinogen, but it pollutes waterways and the landscape because it does not disintegrate easily.
She was happy with the panel’s decision as the widespread use of this material for drink and food prompted her group to focus on it, particularly in cases where children are regularly exposed to it.
Image Credit: Richard Masoner