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The Invisible Poison

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A factual examination of polysterene—otherwise known as the container for your take out. Should you really eat food from it?

Polysteryne is utterly fascinating. A marvel of the petrochemical revolution, whole industries have arisen to feed our consumer civilization with its gifts.

All our lives are touched by it through plastic bottles, disposable shavers, and an assortment of trinkets that clutter homes and offices. You may recognize its most popular version: plastic. Polystyrene, despite being a very compulsive presence, is also a victim of mistaken identity. A particular species of polystyrene is often blamed (even outlawed in a few Philippine cities, such as Marikina) for endangering lives.

The suspect is foamed polystyrene, better known as Styrofoam, a brand name owned by the Dow Chemical Company. The charges are severe: cancer and a host of illnesses of the lungs, internal organs, and skin. The verdict? An ill-defined suspicion that the ‘mainstream’—the web of government agencies, big medicine, and great industrial enterprises—have so far spared the ubiquitous material a harsh sentence.

Styrofoam, a type of baked polystyrene that was introduced in 1954, has made a huge and completely benevolent impact on insulating materials. Thanks to its innate heat resistance, Styrofoam is often used as emergency peripheral, but found broader acceptance as the ultimate in food packaging. The power of marketing also did a splendid job with it; every other polystyrene manufacturer that outs disposable cups and containers have their products labeled Styrofoam by the public. To avoid semantic confusion, let Styrofoam predominate for most of this story. The most popular Styrofoam icon is, of course, a molten hot cup of coffee bought from a fast food chain. Thus begins the outcry.

A carcinogen gives you cancer. At least this is what Styrofoam’s most virulent detractors claim. The reasoning goes that the presence of styrene in Styrofoam containers ‘leach’ onto liquid and food, thus, when consumed, the toxins enter the human body in small amounts. This means Styrofoam acts as a vessel for styrene, itself a very interesting substance.

First discovered in natural resin, styrene is a harmless and rather aromatic monomer that evaporates quickly and is a non-event when consumed (not recommended). In its pristine state, styrene has no enemies. But the detractors howl loud and fast when it comes to styrene’s role in what people consume. Is there truth to their claims? The downer is, while the industrial production of polystyrene has been blamed for nervous disorders and respiratory illnesses, the available literature on the connection of styrene to dreaded cancer or any other life-threatening side-effect is at best vague.

Reading available sources from the medical establishment abroad reveals the preponderance of words such as ‘may,’ ‘suspected,’ ‘possible,’ ‘suggests,’ reflecting a strange uncertainty about the Styrofoam dilemma. To date, while it is widely believed to have been a key player in a prolonged cancer epidemic afflicting the post-modern world, demonizing Styrofoam has not been too successful in convincing governments to abolish its use. In fact, aside from Marikina (truly a model for the Philippines) only the state of California, Seattle, and several other cities have outlawed Styrofoam and polystyrene derivatives.

This does not mean Styrofoam, much like the rest of our consumer environment, is a positive force. It may be acquitted from the carcinogen debate, but Styrofoam is a repeat offender on many other troubling crises. The ultimate non-biodegradable, a CFC emitter when burnt, and expensive to recycle, Styrofoam is not very useful outside the single utility its various incarnations serve. Together with plastic bags (a polystyrene innovation), Styrofoam in its many forms has cluttered landfills, chocked rivers, fouled the atmosphere with carbon, and harmed animals who ingest it. Its most dubious honor is its hardiness; millenia from now, it is possible that archaeologists may unearth disposed Styrofoam and marvel at the technological prowess of the civilization that created it.

The foundation of public enmity toward Styrofoam in particular, and the profligate application of polystyrene in general, are rooted in the anti-consumerist ethos. While there exists today a discernible clamor for the removal of Styrofoam in any marketplace or restaurant, no country on earth has yet taken this crucial step—rather surprising in light of the endless legislation to curb public smoking.

So, at present, the decision to resist Styrofoam is a matter of sentiment. There must be a strong conviction on the part of the consumer to draw a line between what is acceptable in exchange of their purchasing power and what is not. It is interesting to note that the strongest opponents of Styrofoam rank among the green crowd whose affiliations include a sensitivity for the natural world, an aversion to industrialization, and awareness of the alienation fostered by a societal shift to crass materialism. These ills are just symptoms of a more virulent disease and, should a person choose to disconnect, be separated from decisively. That means no more instant coffee in disposable cups.

Rather than recommend extreme countermeasures, it is actually more helpful for those wishing to understand the Styrofoam question to seek insightful knowledge on their own. Inform yourself then self-determine. This story is a small first step and Styrofoam, as much as it has been targeted for severe criticism, forms a small part in a greater ecosystem of lifeless creations brought to us by a petrochemical boom in the previous century. It is hard to condemn Styrofoam as a willingly imbibed poison by the blind masses; it is easier to find fault in the sorry cliché that’s the instant-gratification-sheeple syndrome permeating human minds.

The broad and loosely-knit anti-Styrofoam crusade is no longer confined to fringe groups, however. Other than the pioneering decision by the city government of Marikina, in the legislative front there exists a proposed bill meant to remove any polycarbonate product from schools. Also known as House Bill No. 2676 by Rep. Raymond Palatino and filed in 2010, it remains to be seen if it will ever be made a law with attendant penalties. Additionally, during the Arroyo administration Republic Act 9003 was passed to facilitate the proper disposal of polystyrene/Styrofoam products.

Surprisingly, when knowledge of a complex issue is most in demand, the poor state of corporate controlled science, where fact becomes muddled into unpalatable soundbytes nobody understands, does not help much. Since tangible answers from the experts is convoluted at best, to remove polystyrene from food distribution becomes a matter of principle. It ultimately boils down to a Bartleby* endgame among the willing: “I would prefer not to.”

Print ed: 09/11


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