My niece is a college student, and forget about the healthy snacks that my sister once plied her with — frozen blueberries, raw carrots and peppers, Greek yogurt. Now she and her roommates subsist on salty soups in Styrofoam containers that they heat in the communal microwave. This, too, will pass, I know, but a recent US Department of Health and Human Services report provides greater cause for concern. In June, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of HHS, added styrene — the chemical used in the manufacture of Styrofoam cups and food containers — to its list of substances “reasonably anticipated” to cause cancer. Styrene has also been linked to nerve damage and hormonal disruption.

The Chemicals Leach Into Your Food

Styrofoam is made from the plastic polystyrene, which is based on building blocks called styrene monomers. When you drink your steaming cup of coffee or spoon your chicken noodle soup or chili out of a Styrofoam cup, you also take in small doses of chemicals that leach from it. “Trace amounts of styrene as well as various chemical additives in polystyrene migrate into food, which increases significantly in hot liquids,” explains Olga Naidenko, PhD, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group ( “This is a problem, because polystyrene is very commonly used as disposable packaging for hot food and beverages” — and has been for many years!

The HHS says that the levels released from food containers are very low — but for me, that’s not very comforting when I think about the literally thousands of doses that we each have taken in over the years. Then, too, every day we are bombarded with a multitude of toxins in the environment. It all adds up… so now, are you willing to accept toxic industrial chemicals in your soup?

Don’t Swallow It

Reducing exposure to cancer-causing agents is something we all want, but it takes knowledge and action on each person’s part to achieve that.

  • Boycott Styrofoam. Do not eat or drink out of Styrofoam containers (even if you’re a college student). I know it sounds obvious, but in today’s food culture, that’s easier said than done. It’s especially important not to consume anything hot, oily, acidic (including tomato sauce-based foods) or alcoholic from Styrofoam, since heat, oil, acid and alcohol increase leaching. This rules out, for example, hot drinks, citrus beverages, dressed salads and take-out burgers and, of course, beer and wine. Don’t store food in Styrofoam — there are plenty of other packaging options. Be especially cognizant when you’re eating out at a restaurant and find yourself asking the waiter if he/she will pack up what you didn’t finish so that you can take it home. Ask if they have alternatives to Styrofoam, or even bring your own container from home.
  • Choose healthier food and beverage containers. Eat and drink out of toxin-free glass, ceramic, stoneware or BPA-free plastic — not Styrofoam or plastic. (Read about health concerns with the chemical BPA in plastic in the July 4, 2011 issue of Daily Health News.)
  • Beat the heat. Whatever else you do, don’t microwave food in Styrofoam. Reheat leftovers in glass, ceramic or stoneware.
  • BYOC. Bring your own cup to coffee shops and diners that use Styrofoam for beverages. Some ecofriendly businesses in my neighborhood even give you 25 cents off to encourage you to do the right thing for the environment — which happens to be the right thing for your body as well.
  • Vote with your feet. Patronize food establishments that provide recyclable cardboard take-out containers, not Styrofoam.