Chemical in foam cups again seen as likely cancer cause

by Delthia Ricks, Newsday

The National Research Council Monday reaffirmed that styrene - the key chemical component of foam cups and other food service items - may cause cancer in people.

A panel of 10 experts in medicine, chemistry and toxicology used a rather stilted definition, "reasonably anticipated to be a human ," to uphold the same finding from three years ago by the National Toxicology Program in its 12th Report on Carcinogens.

"I think it's important to keep in mind that this is a hazard assessment," said Dr. Jane Henney, who chaired the research council's committee of experts.

"Our report says this chemical could be a problem, but a full risk-assessment on dose, exposure, quantification and further characterization of the risk would need to be done before one would think about regulation in this area," added Henney, who headed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration during the Clinton administration.

Henney said her panel's conclusion-"reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen" - means there is scientific evidence suggesting that styrene causes cancer, but that there may be "alternative explanations, such as chance, bias or confounding factors," according to the report.

Another definition - "known to be a carcinogen," sets a much higher bar because it states overwhelming scientific evidence and leaves no element of doubt. Neither the research council nor the toxicology program used that definition.

The National Toxicology Program is part of the National Institutes of Health. The National Research Council is a major policy body and division of the National Academies, which includes the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Engineering.

Styrene is a widely used compound in resins and plastics, but is best known to the public as the polymer polystyrene, which is widely used in plastic foam products.

For decades, industry leaders have insisted that styrene-based products, especially those used in food service, are safe.

On Long Island, the council's announcement was met with applause from advocates pushing for a ban of styrene-based products.

"Styrene is an endocrine disrupter and one of the chemicals we are concerned about in the breast cancer community," said Laura Weinberg, president of the Great Neck Breast Cancer Coalition.

An endocrine disrupter, Weinberg said, is any chemical that mimics estrogen and drives the growth of cancers.

Other groups also have been trying to eliminate plastic foam from contact with the food supply, especially warm liquids, which they say causes styrene to leach out.

"Since 2000 we have been actively working on plastics issues and has been at the top of the list, along with PVC," said Patti Wood, executive director of Grassroots Enviromental Education, a Port Washington, N.Y., health advocacy organization.

Styrene is not only a possible carcinogen, she said, but plastic foam products have been cited for polluting waterways and the national landscape because it does not easily disintegrate.

"The fact that it is used so ubiquitously as a material for food and drink made us focus on it, especially where children are being exposed every single day. So this is good news," Wood said Monday of the panel's decision.

4.8 /5 (4 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Weighing cancer risks, from cellphones to coffee

Jun 15, 2011

You're sitting in a freshly drywalled house, drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup and talking on a cellphone. Which of these is most likely to be a cancer risk? It might be the sitting, especially if you do ...

New substances added to HHS Report on Carcinogens

Jun 10, 2011

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services today added eight substances to its Report on Carcinogens, a science-based document that identifies chemicals and biological agents that may put people at increased risk for ...

US removes saccharin from hazards list

Dec 14, 2010

The US government Tuesday removed the artificial sweetener saccharin, long believed to be a potential cancer-causing substance found in diet drinks and chewing gum, from its list of hazardous substances.

Plastic products leach toxic substances

May 16, 2011

Many plastic products contain hazardous chemicals that can leach to the surroundings. In studies conducted at the University of Gothenburg, a third of the tested plastic products released toxic substances, including 5 out ...

Recommended for you

Study reveals state of crisis in Canadian foster care system

Oct 24, 2014

A new study of foster care in Canada led by a researcher at Western University reveals a shrinking number of foster care providers are available across the country to care for a growing number of children with increasingly ...

Researchers prove the benefits of persimmons for diet

Oct 24, 2014

Alba Mir and Ana Domingo, researchers from the Department of Analytical Chemistry of the University of Valencia, under the supervision of professors Miguel de la Guardia and Maria Luisa Cervera, from the same department, ...

Hand blenders used for cooking can emit persistent chemicals

Oct 24, 2014

Eight out of twelve tested models of hand blenders are leaking chlorinated paraffins when used according to the suppliers' instructions. This is revealed in a report from Stockholm University where researchers analyzed a ...

User comments