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Question from Lisa

Dear Debra,

I try hard to buy things that do not have styrofoam, but often if I order something from a catalog or on-line, it is shipped in styrofoam.

The styrofoam often breaks apart, and little pieces get loose when I unpackage the item.

I’m wondering if this causes any health concerns from either particles/dust becoming airborne, or just being scattered around my home.

I also have a small child and I worry about my child ingesting small pieces of the styrofoam.

Am I worried about nothing, or should I return items packaged this way?

Debra’s Answer

First, let me say, that each and every one of us already has styrene in our bodies. It is ubiquitous in the environment. Even polar bears have styrene in their bodies.

Occupational Safety & Health Administration: Styrene Hazard Recognition gives a list of references about the toxicity of styrene and mentions that it causes symptoms ranging from irritation of the skin, eyes, and the upper respiratory tract to central nervous system symptoms such as depression, headache, fatigue, and weakness.

In my book Home Safe Home, I cited the National Adipose Tissue Survey of the National Public Health Service, a department of the Environmental Protection Agency, which showed how frequently chemicals are retained by our bodies and how common exposures are. Styrene topped the list, with 100% of the people tested having this chemical in their fat. If a chemical is in your fat, it means the body has stored it there to keep it out of your system.

But are your little broken styrene shipping peanuts a health hazard? Probably not. Not enough material and not enough length of exposure. A greater hazard would be hot coffee or soup or food in a styrene takeout container.

If you don’t want to receive these styrene peanuts (they aren’t biodegradable, though you can recycle them at many shipping stores), ask before you order if they are used in the packaging. That way you don’t need to return the item. If you do choose to not purchase because of the styrene peanuts, let them know they lost your business because of this.

There are shipping peanuts made from renewable corn that just melt when you put them in water. It’s called “biodegradable loose fill” (search on this term in your favorite search engine for more info and sources). You could recommend they use this instead.

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