Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images

Polystyrene foam, better known under the trademarked name Styrofoam, is the material of choice for many coffee cups and takeout containers used in restaurants. Polystyrene foam's light weight and insulation properties also make it a favorite choice for cups, plates and bowls at family picnics. But styrene, the chemical building block of polystyrene foam, is linked to an array of health problems. Styrene can leach from cups and containers into hot drinks and food and bleed into alcohol or high-fat drinks and foods in particular. Consumers who drink beverages from polystyrene cups four times a day for three years will have ingested about one foam cup's worth of styrene along with those beverages.

Acute Health Effects

Short-term symptoms of excessive exposure to styrene can include irritation of the skin, eyes and upper respiratory tract as well as gastrointestinal distress. Generally, exposure to polystyrene cups and containers won’t be enough to cause acute symptoms in consumers, but people who live near polystyrene container plants or who work in polystyrene factories can develop side effects from contact with the substance. Hallmarks of acute styrene sickness include headaches, fatigue and feelings of drunkenness.

Long-term Health Effects

Researchers have linked chronic exposure to even small amounts of the styrene in polystyrene foam to depression and hormonal dysfunction. Studies indicate that styrene mimics estrogen and can interfere with hormone balances, potentially causing thyroid trouble and menstrual irregularities. Blood disorders, including low platelet counts or hemoglobin values, have been linked to long-term styrene exposure as have chromosomal and lymphatic abnormalities. Styrene can accumulate in the tissues of the brain, spinal cord and nerves and can yield fatigue, nervousness and sleeping problems. The International Agency for Research on Cancer lists styrene as a possible human carcinogen,or cancer-causing agent. Some scientists have linked styrene to cancers of the breast and prostate.

Environmental Effects

Polystyrene foam production generates mountains of liquid and solid waste. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tabbed polystyrene manufacturing as the nation’s number five creator of hazardous waste. The manufacturing process also releases into the air hydrocarbons, which sink to ground level and mix with atmospheric nitrogen oxides to produce tropospheric ozone, a major air pollutant that can cause chest pain, coughing, wheezing and pulmonary congestion in people exercising outside. The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research pinpointed nearly 60 chemical byproducts released into the air during the burning of polystyrene foam at landfills and other waste disposal centers. What’s more, polystyrene cups and containers comprise 25 to 30 percent of all landfill volume in the U.S.; dumped into the countryside as litter, the foam degrades into pieces that can choke wildlife and obstruct their digestive tracts. Some municipalities, including Portland, Oregon and Orange County, California, have banned polystyrene foam to curb the material’s environmental effects.


At home or in the office, swap out polystyrene cups, plates and bowls with ceramic alternatives. When ordering takeout or bringing home leftovers from a restaurant, immediately transfer beverages and foods from polystyrene containers into glass or ceramic cups and dishes. At the grocery store, buy food stored on shelves in glass containers, rather than plastic or foam jars and bottles. If plastic- or foam-stored food is the only option, buy the largest size so that the food’s surface contact with the container is limited. Never microwave food in polystyrene containers. The foam dishes can melt in the microwave and hasten the styrene flow into your food and drink.