Styrene is otherwise famous in its various mixtures as polystyrene, ethenylbenzene, or styrol. Thus, it may be the single most widespread chemical compound that you come in contact with during your day to day life. You’ve come across it many times within in your lifetime, having been near to it almost daily. Chances are even today you’ve come in contact with this potential health hazard. Furthermore, you’ve probably been completely unaware while doing so.

It’s hard to avoid styrene as it is an essential building block. It’s been the raw material in the production of so many of the products we rely on. But are the dangers of this compound understated or is it as safe as we are led to believe?

two styrene polystyrene cups beach

What Is Styrene?

Styrene, itself, is an organic compound that naturally occurs as a by-product of petroleum production and refinement. The sweet, yellow liquid, as it is in its natural state, is mainly useful as the starting point for polystyrene production. Other than that, multiple uses are possible across a wide variety of production methods. Though highly flammable and incredibly volatile, polystyrene is still in use everywhere. Basically – the production of quite a considerable amount of consumer products on the market every day.

What Items Contain Styrene?

As styrene is used as one of the principle ingredients for polystyrene production, many items contain some varying amount depending upon the item. Everyday items such as tires, food containers, plastic pieces, and even the conveyor belt you place your grocery items on contain styrene in one form or another. The organic compound has lent itself to many uses and is found in a good amount of the products you use daily, even innocuous items such as:

  • Photocopier toner cartridges;
  • Packing peanuts;
  • Garden hoses;
  • Dental fillings;
  • And even cigarette smoke.

All contain detectable levels of polystyrene.

The Dangers of Styrene

  1. Styrene poses a carcinogenic hazard to those that come in contact with it. It was put the label of a possible carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and World Health Organization.
  2. The US Environmental Protection Agency says the compound is a hazardous air pollutant and regulates it thoroughly as such.
  3. Styrene is known to also be a toxin when put in the human system. Thus, it directly affects the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, as well the kidneys.
  4. Contact with the vapors made by styrene is said to cause irritation to the nose, eyes, and mouth. Contact with the liquid substance directly is also possible to cause first degree burns, though the public at large rarely, if ever, do come in contact with styrene in its pure form.
  5. Exposure to the compound has a much-researched effect of the central nervous system of human beings, causing feelings of nausea, dizziness, fatigue, weakness, and vertigo. In some cases, exposure led to the development of more serious nervous system complications such as severe depression.
  6. Styrene has also been known to adversely affect the reproductive systems of those who face long time and repeated exposure. Mainly this means those who directly deal with the compound in its pure form.

Are There Benefits to Styrene?

The most notable of all benefits of styrene is how easily it lends itself to production methods. As an organic compound, its variety of uses is almost endless lending to the fact that it is present in so many consumer products distributed across almost every industry. In terms of production, no other organic compound comes close to the versatile nature of styrene. It is both extremely cost effective in lowering production expenses and improves the durability of all products it is used to create. Making it difficult to find a reasonable replacement at the current time.

So it’s potentially carcinogenic in nature and widely in use across the globe. Still, styrene wasn’t shown to pose such a high risk that it warrants a complete, worldwide avoidance. The levels of contact most people have on a day to day basis pose no serious proven threat to health though lawsuits have been filed to warn consumers of the potential for harm as most people are completely unaware they even use products that contain styrene. Until more research has been conducted and a viable alternative is found, there may be no way to completely avoid coming in contact with organic compound.

Have you had your own experiences with the safety concerns posed by the compound? Feel free to add the discussion below.

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