Polystyrene foam is bad for your body and the environment

Op-ed: The case for banning Styrofoam in Maryland.

This legislative session, Maryland state Sen. Cheryl Kagan and Del. Brooke Lierman are introducing a ban on polystyrene foam foodservice products, including the trademarked Styrofoam versions, and loose fill packaging (SB186 and HB229, respectively). These containers have significant impact on the health of humans and marine life in Maryland, as well as its scenic landscapes and waterways.

When Maryland restaurants and cafeterias stop using polystyrene foam containers, they will be building on successes in D.C. and Montgomery and Prince George's counties to eliminate the unnecessary waste that's clogging up Maryland's natural beauty. Polystyrene foam contains likely cancer-causing chemicals that can leach into the food and drinks they hold, making them dangerous to consumers. Littered polystyrene foam never fully degrades yet absorbs other chemicals from the environment, which bioaccumulate up the food chain affecting the fish, oysters and crabs that may consume them, resulting in potential harm to people who eat Maryland seafood. We must ban the foam because everyone deserves to enjoy Maryland's food, drinks and scenery without these harmful products.

Styrene, the main ingredient in polystyrene foam, is a likely human carcinogen, according to both the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Toxicology Program. In mice, it causes lung tumors. In people, it increases the risk for leukemia and lymphoma. Styrene-exposed workers in plastics and rubber industries suffer higher rates of cancer, and female workers may have increased risk of miscarriages. As far back as 1982, the EPA discovered styrene in the breastmilk of all of the women tested in four different U.S. cities. Heating up polystyrene foam containers can cause the styrene to leach into the food or drinks. This toxin has no place in our bodies, schools, restaurants or homes.

In addition to threatening our health, styrene threatens our waterways and the ecosystems that depend on them. In 2014, 28.5 million pounds of styrene made in the U.S. found its way into the environment. People litter polystyrene foam more than any other waste product. Though it's only 1 percent of all waste, it makes up 10 percent to 40 percent of litter found in streams. In our own Baltimore City, nearly 420,000 polystyrene containers have been collected in the Jones Falls Water Wheel since May 2014. That's more than one for every adult in Baltimore. In addition to being an eyesore, all that foam leaches chemicals into the environment, affecting the fish, crabs and other wildlife that may consume it. Polystyrene foam does not decompose and will continue to accumulate in the environment we depend on for our food until it is banned.

The Maryland bill to ban polystyrene foam will decrease this accumulation, improving the health of our waterways, our wildlife and our people. Under the bill, schools, restaurants, cafes and distributors will phase out polystyrene foam over the next two years. Polystyrene foam food and beverage containers and foam peanuts for packaging will be replaced with environmentally-friendly, cost-comparable, compostable alternatives. Prince George's County's website already offers a list of nearly 80 manufacturers and distributors of alternative packaging and food storage containers.

Unfortunately, polystyrene foam containers are currently cheap and readily available. Yet, consumers do not always have a choice of which containers a business chooses to provide, making it difficult for consumer demand to inform supply. A ban on polystyrene foam sales would be an appropriate and practical legislative solution that would enable businesses to make a consumer- and environmentally-friendly move that would impact all Marylanders. The plastics industry has the opportunity to show leadership by collaborating with businesses to develop innovative solutions.

Already Washington D.C., Montgomery County, Prince George's County, and the cities of Takoma Park and Gaithersburg have banned polystyrene foam use in food containment and packaging materials, minimizing the harm to the Anacostia River. Seventy-six jurisdictions in eight other states have also adopted polystyrene foam bans. It's time to stop harming the Chesapeake Bay and the people who call Maryland home. It's time to ban polystyrene foam.

Dr. Richard Bruno (Twitter @RichardBrunoMD) is a family medicine resident physician at MedStar Health, as are contributing Drs. Melanie Connah, Julian Barkan and Nikhil Desai. The opinions of the authors do not represent that of MedStar Health.

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