National Toxicology Program: Safety of Polystyrene Foodservice Packaging

In light of the inclusion of the substance styrene in the U.S. National Toxicology Program’s (NTP) 12th Report on Carcinogens in June 2011, some people may wonder whether federal regulators have changed their view on the safety of plastic foodservice packaging made with styrene.

The answer is no.

FDA Determines Polystyrene Is Safe for Use in Food Contact

In the U.S., the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strictly regulates all food packaging materials, including polystyrene. All food packaging – glass, aluminum, paper and plastics (such as polystyrene) – contains substances that can "migrate" in very tiny amounts to foods or beverages. Tiny amounts of styrene may remain in polystyrene following manufacture, so FDA has evaluated both the safety of the food contact material itself (polystyrene) and the safety of the substance that may migrate (styrene). 

The result of these evaluations: FDA for decades has determined that polystyrene is safe for use in contact with food. More info here. 

NTP: “Styrene Is Not an Issue” in Polystyrene Foodservice Packaging

To put its 12th Report in perspective, NTP states: “It is important to note that the reports do not present quantitative assessments of carcinogenic rise...Listing in the report does not establish that such substances present a risk to persons in their daily lives. Such formal risk assessments are the purview of the appropriate federal, state, and local health regulatory and research agencies.” 

So NTP has not concluded that styrene or plastic foodservice packaging made with styrene present any risk to human health.

Indeed, the NTP Director Dr. Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., was quoted widely in Associated Press reports in June 2011: “Let me put your mind at ease right away about polystyrene foam* … [the levels of styrene from polystyrene containers] are hundreds if not thousands of times lower than have occurred in the occupational setting...In finished products, certainly styrene is not an issue.” Source: news reports of Associated Press story, June 2011

John Bucher, NTP Associate Director, was quoted in Associated Press reports in August 2011: "The risks, in my estimation, from polystyrene are not very great," he said. "It's not worth being concerned about."

Source: news reports of Associated Press story, August 2011

U.S. National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS): “Styrene Should Not Be Confused with Polystyrene”

NIEHS in June 2011 noted: “Styrene should not be confused with polystyrene (foam)*. Although styrene, a liquid, is used to make polystyrene, which is a solid plastic, we do not believe that people are at risk from using polystyrene products.”

Source: NIEHS web site

American Cancer Society: “Don’t Need to Worry About Polystyrene”

Bloomberg News in June 2011 reported that American Cancer Society Chief Medical Officer Otis Brawley said, “Consumers don’t need to worry about polystyrene cups and food containers...” Quote: “I see no problems with polystyrene foam* cups.”

Source: Bloomberg News, June 2011

About Styrene

In addition to its use in making polystyrene, styrene is naturally present in foods such as strawberries, peaches, cinnamon, beef and coffee and is produced in the processing of foods such as beer, wine and cheese. FDA has approved styrene as a food additive – it can be added in small amounts to baked goods, frozen dairy products, candy, gelatins, puddings and other food. 

Learn more about: Listing of Styrene in the NTP Report | NTP's 12th Report on Carcinogens

For More Information:

* Original quotes used the term “Styrofoam”. STYROFOAM™ is a registered trademark of The Dow Chemical Company that represents its branded building material products, including rigid foam and structural insulated sheathing, and more. The brand name often is misused as a generic term for polystyrene foam foodservice products.

 

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