What’s In Your Water? Part 2

Green dye flowing into a river that also has a white film floating in it.
Photo by the Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

“We are amid a major water crisis that is beyond anything you can imagine. Pollution problems persist and toxins are everywhere, stemming from the hazardous wastes of industry and agriculture. We’ve got more than forty thousand chemicals on the market today with only a few hundred being regulated.” -Erin Brockovich1

Water Treatment is Necessary

All water is reused, including the water we dump down drains and the contents we flush in toilets. Water treatment facilities “clean” the water by removing solids – including sewage – and treat the water with chemicals. Water has microorganisms, bacteria, and viruses, so it is necessary to treat the water with chemicals so that is safe to drink. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t research or regulate all of those chemicals. As Erin Brockovich noted, “Scientists still have little data about how individual chemicals impact our health, and know even less about the effects of multiple chemicals on the body.”2

“So there is shit in the water; I’d have to make peace with that.” -Elizabeth Royte, Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle Over America’s Drinking Water

Aerial view of a Wastewater treatment plant.
Wastewater treatment plant, image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

Toxic Contaminants Linked to Cancer

Many contaminants are linked to illnesses and health issues, including cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be approximately 1,918,030 new cancer cases in 2022.3 But what is causing all of these cancer cases? Though some cancer may be from genetics or lifestyle, I’m convinced that most cancer is due to exposure to chemicals.

In 2019, researchers revealed that between 2010 and 2017, more than 100,000 cases of cancer were likely caused by the accumulation of carcinogenic chemicals in tap water. They cited arsenic, disinfection byproducts, and radioactive contaminants as the major contaminants, but they also noted that other toxins that are not monitored, such as PFASs and PFOAs, may also contribute to cancer cases.4

“How much of any toxic substance can a human body ingest and still be well? -Erin Brockovich5

Children Are Getting Cancer Too

Cancer affects our children globally. In the U.S., cancer is diagnosed annually in about 400,000 children aged 19 or under. It is the leading cause of death by disease past infancy for children.6 As Erin Brockovich wrote, children “don’t smoke, drink alcohol, or work stressful jobs.” So why are so many getting cancer? Children are more vulnerable to chemical toxins than adults because they have higher metabolisms and less mature immune systems.7 We need more research but suspicion should be enough to tell us that there’s a problem.

“American children are growing up exposed to more chemicals than any other generation in history and it shows.” -Erin Brockovich8

Colorful oil floating in water.
Photo by Steve Snodgrass on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

How Do These Contaminants End Up in Our Water?

Contaminants in our water come from many sources. Besides water treatment chemicals, corporations that discharge toxic wastewater and chemicals into the groundwater and surrounding environment pollute the water. Improperly lined landfills leach toxins into groundwater. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, forces chemicals into the ground to release natural gas and those get into the water supply. The toxins from gasoline and oil spills get into the water. Pharmaceuticals are now in our water supply too.

Herbicides and pesticides applied to large agricultural plots get into the water supply from run-off, meaning rainwater washes some of them away and they get into the water supply. Big agriculture dumps animal waste into our waterways, both directly and indirectly. Tyson Foods, for example, was caught several times directly dumping tons of animal waste into waterways. Indirectly, animal farms maintain hog lagoons to collect animals’ feces and store them in ponds. During floods, those ponds overflow and mix with all of the water and enter the water supply.

Aerial view of a farm, the pink pond at the bottom of the image is an example of a Hog Lagoon, in north Carolina
The pink pond at the bottom of the image is an example of a Hog Lagoon, in North Carolina. Photo by The Waterkeeper Alliance on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Image slightly cropped and fade corrected.

“We assume watchdogs are in place and that regulatory agencies and government standards are keeping us safe…Big businesses rule the roost, dumping their leftover chemicals wherever they like with little regard for our safety.” -Erin Brockovich9

Improve Infrastructure and Treatment

Landfill leachate at a place called Maendy. The orange froth is a mixture of solvents, phenols and other chemicals from a landfill
Landfill leachate in Wales. The orange froth is a mixture of solvents, phenols and other chemicals from a landfill created before regulations. Photo by richie rocket on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Governmental and municipal agencies across the United States must upgrade antiquated water infrastructure and water treatment practices. “The technology we rely on for treating most of our drinking water is almost a century old and many of our water treatment plants have been in operation since the early twentieth century.”10

Monitor Pollution

Federal, state, and local government agencies must supervise industries and monitor for pollution since we know we cannot rely on the industries to self-regulate or self-report. “Unsupervised industry pollution combined with failing infrastructure is a recipe for disaster. To add insult to injury, the more polluted the water becomes, the more chemicals we need to treat it.”11 Otherwise, cancer and related illness will continue to grow.

“We’ve had industrial byproducts discarded into the ground and into our water supply for years. The companies who dump these toxins know it. They have always known it. The government knows it too. These issues affect everyone – rich or poor, black or white, Republican or Democrat. Large and small communities everywhere think they are safe when they are not.” -Erin Brockovich12
Aerial view of the San José-Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Facility.
Aerial view of the San José-Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Facility. Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

What Can You Do?

As I mentioned earlier, water treatment is necessary. But many contaminants in water aren’t just from disinfection, as mentioned in Part 1. Find out what’s in your water by using the Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database. Then learn more about those contaminants in my Guide to Common Water Contaminants. Educate others, advocate through community and municipal meetings, call your water company and local politicians, and don’t take no for an answer.

Please don’t switch to bottled water. This may sound counterintuitive but it is largely a scam. It provides a false sense of security, as the water source for most bottled water is tap water.

In the meantime, review how you’re filtering your water at home. Most water filter systems don’t remove all contaminants. In my next article, I’m going to cover how to filter out the contaminants you are most concerned about. Stayed tuned, and thanks for reading!

 

Additional Resources:

Database, Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database.

Website, Waterkeeper Alliance.

Website, Erin Brockovich.

Interactive Map, “PFAS Contamination in the U.S.,” Environmental Working Group, updated October 4, 2021.

Map, “Contaminant Occurrence Map,” Water Quality Research Foundation.

Article, “Health Professionals: Fracking Can’t Be Done Without Threatening Public Health,” Environmental Working Group, March 16, 2018.

Map, Oil and Gas Threat Map.

 

Footnotes:

What’s In Your Water? Part 1

Photo of a person pouring water into a glass from a kitchen faucet, with a splash.
Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

There are many pitfalls when it comes to finding safe, chemical-free drinking water. Like a lot of people, when I was younger I drank my fair share of bottled water, thinking it was cleaner, healthier than soda, and readily available. I even reused the same plastic bottles over and over to try and minimize my use of plastic. In the mid-2000s I became aware of the dangers of chemicals leaching into water from single-use plastic bottles. So I immediately made the switch to tap water and never looked back.

For my home tap water, I’ve almost always used Brita water pitchers for drinking water. I thought I was filtering out whatever harmful chemicals and potential toxins that the water company didn’t filter out, hence making my water even safer to drink.

Only now am I finding out how wrong I was!

A Broken Brita pitcher

Brita filter pitcher with broken handle and orange top.
My broken Brita pitcher.

After beginning my journey toward plastic-free living, I had to address the plasticity of my Brita pitcher and its filters. At the time, I decided that using a home water filtration system was best since I didn’t want to buy bottled water, especially in plastic bottles. Also, I discovered that you can recycle Brita’s plastic filters, pitchers, and even the filter wrappers through a free TerraCycle program.1 I save all the waste and ship it off about once per year.

Our Brita water pitcher cracked at the handle about 3 years ago, probably because the company makes them out of cheap plastic (though Brita does not disclose what type of plastic is used in their pitchers, only that they are ‘BPA-Free’). We did not drop it or bang it on the sink or anything, we simply filled it and poured it. We kept using it because I refused to purchase another plastic pitcher, ‘recyclable’ or not. But now the handle has completely broken off.

Shopping Leads to Discoveries

On a recent shopping trip, I decided to replace my broken water pitcher. In the process, I discovered that there is more than one type of filter for Brita, and they offer different levels of filtration. It turns out that the different levels filter different contaminants. This immediately gave me pause. Was my family, drinking city-treated tap water while trying to avoid plastic, still exposed to toxins and chemicals in our water?

Additionally, there were many brands of water filtration systems, all offering promises of “cleaner” and “safer” drinking water. I soon felt overwhelmed and undereducated about water filtration, so I left the store without purchasing one. I planned to research water filtration systems, purchase one, and share my research with you.

But it’s much more complicated than I thought. And I discovered that our water situation is much worse than I ever knew.

Kitchen sink with faucet running.
Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

What’s In Your Water?

When I searched online for a comprehensive comparison of home water filtration systems, I kept seeing the same advice over and over again: Find out what’s in your water. Then select a water filtration system based on that. I found my way to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) Tap Water database, the most ambitious collection of data regarding tap water pollutants. “The database collects mandatory annual test reports from 2014 to 2019, produced by almost 50,000 water utilities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.”2 The data is comprised of water quality analysis from more than 31 million state water records.

“For too many Americans, turning on their faucets for a glass of water is like pouring a cocktail of chemicals. Lead, arsenic, the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS and many other substances are often found in drinking water at potentially unsafe levels, particularly in low-income and underserved communities…[our database] reveals that when some Americans drink a glass of tap water, they’re also potentially getting a dose of industrial or agricultural contaminants linked to cancer, brain and nervous system damage, fertility problems, hormone disruption and other health harms.”-Environmental Working Group3

My Water

On EWG’s tap water database, I entered my zip code and found my water provider.4 What I discovered was so alarming that I almost cried!

Screenshot of the 7 contaminents found in my local water.

Above are just the contaminants that exceed EWG’s guidelines. My family’s tap water has 13 times the recommended limit on hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen made famous by the Erin Brockovich cases against PG&E since the 1990s. However, though I’d maybe heard of some of the other contaminants, I was not familiar with their toxicity or threats to human health.

“The [Environmental Protection Agency] standards were negotiated based on the technical feasibility and cost of water treatment and did not consider the long-term toxicity of these contaminants.” -Environmental Working Group5

Hexavalent Chromium

Chromium is an odorless, tasteless, metallic element that occurs naturally. Hexavalent chromium compounds are a group of chemicals with properties like corrosion resistance, durability, and hardness. These compounds have been used in the manufacture of pigments, metal finishing and chrome plating, stainless steel production, leather tanning, and wood preservatives. They have also been used in textile-dyeing processes, printing inks, drilling muds, fireworks, water treatment, and chemical synthesis.6 It may even be present at low levels in cement, which is used in concrete, mortar, stucco, and grouts.7

Also known as Chromium-VI, it was commonly used as a coolant and anti-corrosive at natural gas plants and electrical power stations. If not handled or discharged properly, it can seep into the groundwater and poison those who use the water, as was the case in the Erin Brockovich lawsuits. It can be ingested, inhaled, and absorbed through the skin.

It is a known carcinogen, causing stomach cancer, lung cancer, nasal and sinus cancers, kidney and liver damage, malignant tumors, nasal and skin irritation and ulceration, dermatitis, eye irritation and damage.8 It also causes all manner of reproduction problems to both males and females. Worse, it can cause developmental problems in fetuses. Other reported effects include mouth ulcers, diarrhea, abdominal pain, indigestion, vomiting, leukocytosis, presence of immature neutrophils, metabolic acidosis, acute tubular necrosis, kidney failure, and death.

“The EPA’s national survey of chromium-6 concentrations in drinking water revealed that the contaminant was found in more than three-fourths of water systems sampled, which supply water to more than two-thirds of the American population,” or approximately 232 million Americans.9

EPA has a drinking water standard of 100 parts per billion (ppb) for total chromium. This includes all forms of chromium, including trivalent (non-toxic) and hexavalent chromium.10 Based on a 2008 study by the National Toxicology Program, the California Office of Health Hazard Assessment set a public health goal in 2011 for chromium-6 in drinking water of 0.02 parts per billion. However, “the safety review of the chemical by the Environmental Protection Agency has been stalled by pressure from the industries responsible for chromium-6 contamination.”11 In other words, hexavalent chromium is allowed to be in our tap water in great quantities.

“It’s been common knowledge in the scientific community for years that people who inhale hexavalent chromium can contract lung cancer. Is it really so surprising that swallowing it also leads to cancer?” -Erin Brockovich12

Glass of drinking water
Image by Bruno Henrique from Pixabay

Total Trihalomethanes

Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs) refer to a group of harmful contaminants known collectively as disinfection byproducts. They are found in chemically treated water, which includes municipal tap water. These are formed when chlorine or other disinfectants used to treat drinking water react with plant and animal waste in drinking water supplies. But drinking water must be treated to prevent microbial diseases and pathogens. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) asserts that though necessary, “every measure must also be taken to decrease the amount of disinfection byproducts in finished drinking water served at the tap.”13

Four trihalomethanes include chloroform, bromoform, bromodichloromethane, and dibromochloromethane. The EPA’s legal limit for these in tap water is 80.0 ppb. But the healthy limit recommendation is 0.15 ppb, proposed by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) and adopted by EWG. Disinfection byproducts increase the risk of bladder cancer, pregnancy problems (including miscarriage), cardiovascular defects, neural tube defects, change to fetal development, and low birth weight. The EPA classified bromodichloromethane and bromoform as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”14 People are exposed to these by using water with these contaminants, whether it is drinking, eating food prepared with it, and bathing or swimming.

Bromodichloromethane is found in 48 states and is in the water of approximately 237 million Americans.15

“The federally regulated disinfection byproducts are just a small subset of a larger group of toxic contaminants that form during water disinfection. Hundreds of other disinfection byproducts form in drinking water and may harm human health.”- Environmental Working Group16

Close up image of a water/drinking fountain.
Image by Jason Gillman from Pixabay

Haloacetic Acids

This is another group of contaminants known as disinfection byproducts. The EPA’s legal limits for these are 60 ppb. But the healthy limit recommendation is 0.10 ppb, proposed by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) and adopted by EWG. In 2018, the National Toxicology Program classified six haloacetic acids as likely carcinogens.17 “Haloacetic acids are harmful during pregnancy and may increase the risk of cancer. Haloacetic acids are genotoxic, which means that they induce mutations and DNA damage.”18

Haloacetic acids are found in tap water in all 50 states and affect the water of approximately 260 million Americans.

Nitrate

Nitrate, one of the most common contaminants in drinking water, gets into water from fertilizer runoff, manure from animal feeding operations, and wastewater treatment plant discharge. “Tap water in agricultural areas frequently has the highest nitrate concentrations. Private drinking water wells in the vicinity of animal farms and intensively fertilized fields, or in locations where septic tanks are commonly used, can also have unsafe levels of nitrate,” even excessive levels.19

The legal limit of 10 mg/L (milligrams per liter, equivalent to parts per million), for nitrate, was set in 1992. “This standard was based on a 1962 U.S. Public Health Service recommendation to prevent acute cases of methemoglobinemia, known as blue baby syndrome, which can occur when an infant’s excessive ingestion of nitrate leads to oxygen deprivation in the blood.” The EWG recommended level of nitrate in drinking water is 0.14 mg/L, which is 70 times less than the federal limit.20 Nitrate is found in the water of 49 states and affects approximately 237 million people.21

Besides the effect on babies, nitrate is associated with thyroid disease, cancers, increased heart rate, nausea, headaches, and abdominal cramps.22 Worse, nitrate converts into other compounds in the digestive system, and they damage DNA and cause cancer in multiple species.23

“Nitrate pollution of U.S. drinking water may be responsible for up to 12,594 cases of cancer a year.”24

Radium

Radium is a radioactive element that can occur naturally in groundwater. But coal, oil, and gas extraction activities such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and mining can elevate concentrations in groundwater. Radium causes bone cancer; tumors in bone, lungs, and other organs; leukemia; and skin and blood damage. More than a dozen different radioactive elements are detected in U.S. tap water, including beryllium, radon, strontium, tritium, and uranium. But radium is the most common. These affect the water of approximately 165 million Americans. In addition to causing cancers, these may damage the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. Worse,  radiation can harm fetal growth, cause birth defects, and damage brain development.25

Radium in water is measured in picocuries per liter (pCi/L), which is a measure of radioactivity in water. The current EPA legal limit, not updated since 1976, is 5 pCi/L but the EWG’s recommended limit is 0.05 pCi/L. It is found in the water systems of 49 states and affects approximately 148 million people.26

Other Contaminants in My Water

There were 6 other contaminants detected but under the recommended limits of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). These included chlorate, chloroform, total chromium, manganese, strontium, and vanadium.

Photo of a bird drinking water from a pipe with a green foliage background.
Image by 165106 from Pixabay

Now What?

I was most shocked because, in my area, the water utility we are on is considered one of the best around. It is in compliance with legally mandated federal health-based drinking water standards. So what happened?

As it turns out, almost everyone’s water is contaminated.

But how did the water in the United States get so tainted with chemicals and toxins? More importantly, what can I do about it? Can I filter these toxins out? In my next articles, I’ll explore the different water filtration systems and how our water became so contaminated and polluted. In the meantime, please investigate the contaminants in your own water at EWG’s Tap Water Database. I’ve also compiled a Guide to Common Water Contaminants. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Erin Brockovich: the real story of the town three decades later,” bABC News, June 10, 2021.

Article, “Drinking Water Nitrate and Human Health: An Updated Review,” by Ward, Mary H et al. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 15, No.7, July 23, 2018

Footnotes:

The Great Christmas Tree Debate

Miniature red car and Christmas tree
Photo by Kristina Paukshtite from Pexels

Real, or artificial? The great Christmas tree debate, each side with pros and cons. I have never been able to pick a side in this annual conundrum. That is until I found a great zero-waste solution.

Artificial Christmas tree
Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

Artificial Trees

I grew up with an artificial tree, and that is what we have now. We bought it after buying our home but before starting our plastic-free journey, and before I knew about the potential toxins in artificial Christmas trees. Also, I personally always believed that a fake tree was better since it is reusable. I thought that cutting down a tree was killing it. And I thought that killing a tree just to have it in my home for one holiday seemed selfish and antinature.

Most artificial Christmas trees are made of metals and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, which can be a potential source of hazardous lead. “The potential for lead poisoning is great enough that fake trees made in China are required by California Prop 65 to have a warning label,” according to the National Christmas Tree Association.1 Prop 65, or Proposition 65, provides warnings about significant exposures to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.

PVC also releases gases known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and phthalates that can irritate the eyes, nose, and lungs. I’ve seen recommendations to shop for a PVC-free tree made from polyethylene which is considered safer and not known to leach harmful chemicals. But this is not easy to find. I did discover that IKEA’s Christmas trees are PVC and BPA free. Even if you find one,  it’s still a plastic tree.

From what I’ve read, it seems that most off-gassing may occur when the tree is new, so unpack it and leave it outside to off-gas for a while before bringing it into your home. According to the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), if you purchase an artificial tree, use it for at least six to nine years before replacing it.2 

That Smell

Among the arguments I’ve heard for real trees, one of the most common is the smell. Those of us with an artificial tree are relegated to scented pine candles, air fresheners, or scented ornament sticks. However, all of those items that are artificially scented likely contain phthalates and other chemicals that are not safe to breathe. Don’t feel bad for not knowing that, I used to use them too! But please safely dispose of them now. Look for a soy or beeswax candle as they are usually much safer. If you have an artificial tree and really want to have that smell in your home, perhaps you can find a few sprigs of pine to put in a vase.

Pine tree
Photo by Loren Cutler on Unsplash

Real Trees

According to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), approximately 25-30 million trees sold in the U.S. every year. There are close to 350 million trees growing on Christmas Tree farms just in the U.S.3 Tree farms emit oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide, and filter toxins from our air. The NCTA indicates that for every real Christmas tree harvested, 1 to 3 seedlings are planted the following spring. “Christmas tree farms stabilize the soil, protect water supplies and support complex eco-systems.”4

Many Christmas tree farms across the world may be monoculture farms, meaning they only grow a single crop which does not encourage biodiversity and sometimes requires extra pesticides to protect the plants. However, “very few Christmas trees are removed from federal forests, and those that are, are strictly regulated by the U.S. Forest Service.”5

The Great Debate

According to a significant study conducted in 2010, the environmental friendliness of a real or artificial Christmas tree depends upon how a family uses it. “The study found that the environmental impacts of one artificial tree used for more than eight Christmases is environmentally friendlier than purchasing eight or more real cut trees over eight years.”6 ACTA encourages consumers to consider buying a locally grown tree if possible to reduce emissions from traveling to buy it.

Pine tree
Photo by Loren Cutler on Unsplash

Disposal of Either Type

Real Christmas trees biodegrade or can be recycled. “Real trees are more sustainable because they are biodegradable, unlike plastic trees which fill landfills and cause more harm than good to the environment.”7 The Arbor Day Foundation also offered multiple ways to recycle a real Christmas tree. “There are more than 4,000 local Christmas Tree recycling programs throughout the United States,” according to the NCTA.8

If you plan to replace an artificial tree, donate it before you dispose of it in a landfill. You can donate it to a thrift store, a neighbor, a church, maybe a homeless shelter. Check with local non-profits as even your local zoo or school may want one. You could also put it online for free through Freecycle, Nextdoor, or Facebook.

4 foot potted Christmas tree
Image from www.rent-a-christmas.com/

The Best Solution: Zero Waste

This year I discovered Christmas Tree rental! This may be the best of both worlds and is a zero-waste option. Tree rental companies deliver the tree to your home or office in a pot and you can decorate it. When the holiday season is over, the rental company will pick it up. This means you can have a real tree annually without cutting one down, and there’s no storage of a plastic tree year-to-year. While this is not a new solution, it is one that is growing.

One Christmas Tree nursery in California notes that their renting program “focuses on zero waste and employs a minimal footprint operation through efficiency and conservation.”9 You’ll also get that smell of fresh pine, the tree will be replanted, the trees provide habitats for wildlife in between the holiday seasons, and they remove carbon dioxide and toxins both from your home and the atmosphere.

This option isn’t available everywhere yet, but be sure to check your state or region. The pricing that I found with various companies ranged from $35-$75, and I saw some as high as $155. But the cost of cutting down a tree is about the same – so why kill a tree?

Let me know if you’ve tried Christmas tree rental and how your experience went. Thanks for reading, and please subscribe. I wish you and your family a very Happy Holidays!

French bulldog with Christmas lights and letter to Santa
Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Tiny House Family’s Christmas Tree Solution,” Tiny House Talk, December 23, 2018.

Article, “8 Sustainable Ways to Recycle your Christmas Tree,” Arbor Day Foundation, December 26, 2019.

Guide, “How to recycle: Real Christmas Trees have a second life,” National Christmas Tree Association, accessed December 21, 2020.

Footnotes:

Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 2

Last updated on September 11, 2021.

Yellow warning sign with skull and crossbones
Image by OpenIcons from Pixabay

In Part 1 of this series, I introduced polystyrene, which we commonly refer to as Styrofoam, food packaging. This type of plastic is terrible for the environment and human health. Today, we’ll look at the toxicity of polystyrene in depth.

After watching friends and coworkers repeatedly reheat their take-out and leftovers in polystyrene, I decided to write a post about it. I had known polystyrene was potentially toxic for a long time, but I had no idea of the breadth of the problem.

Chemicals Leach from Containers into Food

Polystyrene leaches styrene and benzene, chemicals that have known toxic properties, into food. In testing, one scientific journal independently tested and found that polystyrene leaches more toxins when in contact with high-temperature contents and into foods with higher fat content.1 What does this mean? It means that if you buy hot food, fatty food, soup, or coffee and it is packaged in polystyrene, some of the chemicals from the container leach into your food. Over time, these chemicals can cause severe health problems.

“Styrene is likely to leach when it comes in contact with fatty foods, hot beverages, and especially alcohol. When thinking about the kinds of foods that typically end up in Styrofoam containers (fatty foods) and cups (hot coffee), it seems as though the exact kinds of items Styrofoam contains are exactly the kind of items it should never touch.” -The Green Dining Alliance2

Melted polystyrene spots from hot food in a polystyrene container.
I recently went to a BBQ restaurant in Dayton, TN. They serve most of their food in polystyrene containers. My fried okra side melted the polystyrene and those chemicals certainly leached into my food. I didn’t eat the okra, I dumped it out so that I could photograph the container. I likely will never dine at that place again. It really concerns me that people eat food out of these types of containers every day! Photo by me
Melted polystyrene spots from hot food in a polystyrene container.
Photo by me

Known Toxicity

When I searched “polystyrene human health” I got more than 13 million results. After reading many articles, I realized that all organizations and even the government, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), know that polystyrene is harmful to human health as well as land and marine environments. Furthermore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permits the migration of styrene from packaging into food!

Study after study shows that chemicals from polystyrene leach into foods and beverages, especially with higher temperatures and food with higher fat content. And study after study shows that styrene is dangerous to human health. In fact, most agencies caution against the use of polystyrene because of the known health hazards, including:

        • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
        • The World Health Organization (WHO)
        • The International Agency for Research on Cancer
        • National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences
        • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)
        • National Research Council (NRC)
        • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
        • National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
        • The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR), Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Take-out in polystyrene containers
Image by albedo20 on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A Known Carcinogen

Styrene exposure increases the risk of leukemia and lymphoma and is a neurotoxin. This alone is enough reason to avoid polystyrene containers. In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) reclassified styrene as a probable carcinogen.3 While the EPA does not classify it as a carcinogen, it noted that animal cancer studies provided some evidence for carcinogenicity.4 Several of the organizations mentioned above, including the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the Department of Health and Human Services consider it to be carcinogenic.

Hormone Disruption

There are countless studies that show certain types of plastics contain known hormone disruptors. Those chemicals often mimic estrogen and they seep into food and beverages (including breastmilk). In 2014, Environmental Health tested 11 samples of polystyrene and consistently found estrogen seepage after exposure to intense steam or ultraviolet rays5. Since polystyrene is a type of plastic, this is just one more reason to avoid polystyrene containers.

It is terrifying that many schools use foam trays for cafeteria food. Hormone disruption in young children prevents them from developing normally, can affect their ability to reproduce as adults, and can set them up to be prone to other diseases.

Polystyrene food tray
Image by Laura Taylor on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Other Health Hazards

Styrene exposure can come from other sources, such as photocopier toner, automobile exhaust, and plastics manufacturing. Exposure can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, mucous membranes, the upper respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal irritation. Chronic exposure can cause neurological problems such as depression, headaches, fatigue, weakness, hearing loss, and disrupted kidney function.6

Additional Unknown Chemicals

There are many chemicals and ingredients that are not tested for and not regulated by the EPA and FDA. While this may seem surprising, the standard operating procedure in the United States is to allow the chemical to be used until a known hazard is not only discovered, but proven. Essentially, chemicals are innocent until proven guilty.

Hefty polystyrene container
Hefty polystyrene container, photo by me

Exposure through Manufacturing

Anyone who lives near or works in polystyrene manufacturing sites are at risk of even greater health problems due to respiratory exposure. The Clean Water Action organization noted that “occupational exposure to Styrene increases [the] risk of lymphoma, leukemia, lung tumors, pancreatic cancer, urinary bladder cancer, prostate cancer, and colorectal cancer. High rates of neurotoxicological effects have been reported in workers,” as well as decreased sperm counts.”7 These plants also emit a toxic and volatile gas called pentane, often used as a blowing agent in the production of polystyrene. 

“Over fifty chemical byproducts are released during the manufacturing of polystyrene, contaminating the air, water and communities that live near these facilities.” Children’s Environmental Health Network

What You Can Do

Polystyrene is toxic to human health. When ordering take-out, ask the restaurant if they use “Styrofoam” or polystyrene containers, and if they do, you can either ask if they have an alternative type of container or decide to order from somewhere else. When bringing leftovers home from a restaurant, keep a glass or metal container in your car specifically for such occasions. Bring your own reusable coffee mug to coffee shops. As I mentioned at the beginning of my post, please try to avoid eating food in polystyrene, and definitely stop reheating your food in polystyrene containers in the microwave

Last, polystyrene is the most common type of #6 plastic and is largely not recyclable because of food contamination. In Part 3, I will cover the problems with recycling and the environmental damage polystyrene causes. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

“Styrene,” Report on Carcinogens, 14th Edition, National Toxicology Program, Department of Health and Human Services.

Report, “What’s the Package? Unveiling the Toxic Secrets of Food and Beverage Packaging,” Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund, August 2016.

Article, “Leaching of styrene and other aromatic compounds in drinking water from PS bottles,” by Maqbool Ahmad and Ahmad S. Bajahlan, Journal of Environmental Sciences, 19 (2007), p. 421–426, accessed September 12, 2021.

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