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Arguments in favor of polystyrene foam simply don't add up

We'd like to defend a commentary by Richard Bruno of Johns Hopkins in support a bill prohibiting polystyrene (aka Styrofoam) for use in food containers that has been introduced in Annapolis ("Polystyrene foam is bad for your body and the environment," Feb. 16). We also want to counter many of the arguments that B.H. Meyer presented in favor of polystyrene foam in a subsequent letter to the editor ("Polystyrene is no health hazard," Feb. 21).

We are two high school juniors at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, and we continue to see the negative impacts of polystyrene foam on students and on Baltimore City. Polystyrene foam trays are used to serve hot food to Baltimore students every day, which concerns us given how the plastic is manufactured. The two most well-known chemicals used are styrene and benzene. The National Institutes of Health's National Toxicology Program deems styrene "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen" and benzene a known human carcinogen. Styrene can leach into hot foods and can be found in elevated levels in human fat tissue. This is a sign of long-term absorption and not simply short-term presence in the body before excretion.

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Besides being found in polystyrene, benzene and styrene are both found in industrial manufacturing areas and are released into the environment through car tailpipe emissions and cigarette smoke. Sounds like something you want to eat food off of? We don't think so either.

Yes, the FDA says it's "safe," but they also claim that Bisphenol A (BPA) is safe, even after the multiple scientific studies that have shown its dangerous properties. We cannot always rely on government agencies to determine the safety of our food products. And while studies have shown that styrene and benzene are also "naturally found" in some foods, there is a problem with those claims. Those studies on styrene and benzene in food were performed only within the past few decades, well after the two chemicals had been introduced into the environment as a result of industrial manufacturing. So who knows whether strawberries and coffee naturally had these chemicals in them or whether these chemicals have found their way into our foods because of industry?

Mr. Meyer also mentioned our "waste-to-energy incinerators," and while these incinerators do provide energy, it comes at a cost. Incinerators in Baltimore pollute the air and could contribute to elevated asthma rates in youth such as ourselves. When polystyrene foam is burned, it is just like burning oil because it's made from petroleum byproducts. So why are we doing it? We already know that burning oil is toxic to our atmosphere and to our lungs.

There are more natural alternatives — paper products, sugar cane products, recycled pulp products. Yes, these products must be regulated by the FDA as well, but at least they are not manufactured with carcinogens. At least burning them is not like burning fossil fuels. Moving to paper products would encourage municipal composting and help Baltimore shift toward its pledge to be a zero waste city by 2050. This could even help to create local jobs.

Throwing polysytrene into the landfill is never the best option. It quickly shatters into tiny pieces that are virtually impossible to clean up, whereas paper naturally biodegrades, leaving no toxic trace on the Earth's landscape. And although people can litter both polystyrene foam and paper, at least paper litter is not toxic, and at least it breaks down.

Claire Wayner and Mercedes Thompson, Baltimore

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