Polystyrene is a petroleum-based plastic made from the styrene monomer and is marketed under the trade name Styrofoam. We live under the assumption that the common products we use day-to-day are safe. However, serious questions remain about the health effects of many of these products. Through investigation and human and animal studies, sometimes these widely used products are found to cause serious health problems.
Substances that may put people at an increased risk of cancer are identified and listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) part of the World Health Organization (WHO) and in the Report on Carcinogens (RoC), a scientific and public health document prepared by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) for the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This year, both agencies independently added styrene to their lists. IARC listing styrene as “probably carcinogenic to humans” and NTP calling styrene ”reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen”. Being listed under this category means that there is sufficient evidence showing a cause-and-effect relationship between exposure to styrene and cancer. According to the NTP, styrene metabolizes when it comes in contact with the human body, bonding with oxygen to form styrene oxide, a chemical that has the ability to alter DNA and cause cancer.
Styrofoam is a widely used product, popular for its light weight, water-resistant and insulating properties. It is commonly used as a packing material and for take-out food containers. At UHN, about 2 million Styrofoam cups are used by patients, visitors and staff each year.
In addition to its potentially negative health effects, Styrofoam is also harmful to the environment. In most places, including UHN, Styrofoam is not recyclable and is therefore disposed of as trash. Styrofoam will take centuries to break down in landfill and often ends up in oceans where it is very harmful to marine animals. While it is possible to recycle Styrofoam, the technology is expensive and not as sustainable as a switch to an alternative. Before we even have a chance to use Styrofoam products the manufacturing process creates both air and water pollution.
The “Styrofoam Phase-Out” project launched at UHN in 2011 is ongoing. Already about 21 departments across UHN have discontinued their use of Styrofoam cups and are using paper cups as an alternative. Paper cups are recyclable at UHN in the metal/glass/plastic blue bins. However because the cups in the system are better for cold liquids, we are investigating different paper cups on the market and trialing them with hot beverages in some units.
Project update: after months of sorting out and trialing cups from different suppliers, we have narrowed down the running to two choices. Once a final selection is made these new cups should appear in the system for all departments across UHN to use. We hope this will encourage a UHN-wide phase out of Styrofoam.