It is very common in the country (Ghana) and Africa these days to find at social gatherings like funerals, weddings, some restaurants as well as food vendors dishing out food in takeaway packs because of the convenience of carrying the food from one place to another.
The fact is that these convenient packs are Styrofoam which are used on a daily basis, in particular, the disposable food packaging used for take-aways.
What is Styrofoam?
According to Mr Baffo Gyamfi, who is also a Library Assistant at the University of Ghana
Medical School, Korle Bu) that Styrofoam is made from black waste from petroleum fuel distillation popularly known as coal tar.
Styrofoam is actually a brand name for the material, polystyrene (PS). It is denoted by a #6 or PS in the triangle on the bottom of food packaging. The single- molecule form of polystyrene is known as styrene. PS foam, the type used in food packaging for products like take-away containers, supermarket meat trays, etc. is created by injecting the plastic polymer, polystyrene, with a gas- such as HCFC 22, CFC 11, or CFC 12 (all ozone destroying chlorofluorocarbons), or pentane-to expand it into that puffy material. Toxic and hazardous chemicals, including styrene, benzene and ethylene, are used to make PS foam and are a byproduct of PS foam production.
PS Foam and our Health
In 1986, the Environment Protection Agency National Human Adipose Tissue Survey has identified styrene residues in 100% of all samples of human fat tissue taken in 1982 in the US. In fact, the knowledge that styrene from food packaging can migrate into the human body was first documented way back in 1973 and 1976. A 1988 survey published by the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education also found styrene in human fatty tissue with a frequency of 100% at levels from 8 to 350 nanograms/gram (ng/g). The 350 ng/g level is one third of levels known to cause neurotoxic symptoms.
Styrofoam drinking leach Styrofoam into the liquids they contain. The cups apparently lose weight during the time they are in use. The migration of styrene from a polystyrene cup containing cold or hot beverages has been observed to be as high as 0.025% for a single use. That may seem like a rather low number, until you work it this way: If you drink water, tea, or coffee from polystyrene cups four times a day for three years, you may have consumed about one Styrofoam cup worth of styrene along with your beverages. It has been shown that monomer can affect the quality of food products at known migration levels, and over 50 percent of the migration of residual monomer occurs within twenty -four hours (within the normal shelf life of many food products).
Styrene migration has been shown to be dependent on a few factors: fats content, acidity, heat, presence of ethanol and presence of vitamin A.
1. Fats content:
Styrene is soluble in oil and fat. The higher the fats content of the food, the higher the migration of styrene into the food. Entrees, soups, or beverages that are higher in fat (like coffee with milk and fried noodles) will suck more of the styrene out of the polystyrene container.
Acids raises the styrene migration rate. Studies showed that tea with lemon produced the most marked change in the weight of the foam cup.
Studies have found that styrene tends to migrate more quickly when foods or drinks are hot. However, meat or cheese bought from the supermarket on a clear plastic wrapped polystyrene tray is also readily picking up styrene from the foam container.
3. Presence of alcohol (ethanol: Styrene is soluble in ethanol, commonly found in alcoholic beverages. For instance, red wine will instantly dissolve styrene. A 1985 Cuban study noted migration of styrene from low and high density polyethylene into milk, yogurt and alcohol solutions. This means that ingestion can take place by using polystyrene cups to drink beer, wine and mixed alcoholic drinks.
4. Presence of Vitamin A
Most interesting is the degradation of food that contains vitamin A (betacarotene). In packaged foods with the addition of heat (such as microwave temperatures), vitamin A will decompose and produce Maylene, toluene, and 2,6 dimethylnaphthalene. Toluene will aggressively dissolve polystyrene. This renders polystyrene as an unsuitable package for containing or microwaving products that contain vitamin A.
HEALTH EFFECTS OF PLASTICS
Once styrene gets into your food or drink and then into you, what does it do? Studies suggest that styrene poses the following dangers to the human body:
1) DISRUPTION OF ESTROGEN
Styrene mimics estrogens in the body and can therefore disrupt normal hormone functions, possibly contributing to thyroid problems, menstrual irregularities, and other hormone related problems, as well as breast cancer and prostate cancer. The estrogenicity of styrene is thought to be comparable to that of Bisphenol A (BPA), another potent estrogen mimic from the world of plastics.
2) CANCER RISK
Styrene is considered a possible human carcinogen by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer. Evidence already shows that styrene causes cancer in animals.
According to a Foundation for Achievements in Science and Education fact sheet, long term exposure to small quantities of styrene can cause: low platelet counts or hemoglobin values; chromosomal and lymphatic abnormalities;
3) EFFECT ON NERVOURS SYSTEM
Styrene usually exhibits its toxicity to humans as a neurotoxin by attacking the central and peripheral nervous systems. Neurotoxic effects due to accumulation of styrene in the tissues of the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves, resulting in fatigue, nervousness, difficulty sleeping, and other acute or chronic health problems associated with the nervous system.
4) DANGER TO NEWBORNS
Potential mothers, expectant mothers and children need to be careful since alcohol crosses the placental barrier. When alcohol is taken in sachets, it could be the vehicle of transmission of styrene monomer into the fetus, and could explain why small children have traces of styrene monomer in their tissues even though they have never been exposed to the monomer directly. In a study of 12 breast milk samples from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, 75% were contaminated with styrene amongst other hazardous chemicals.
5) PROSTATE ENLARGEMENT
Young men who continuously ate from the takeaway packs could suffer from prostrate enlargement later in life (According to Mr Baffo Gyamfi, who is also a Library Assistant at the University of Ghana Medical School, Korle Bu). “If one eats food from a takeaway pack once every day, it is likely he or she will not survive beyond 10 years,” he added.
Explaining further, Mr Gyamfi said when plastics including takeaway packs come into contact with anything that contains oil, salt, alcohol, heat and acid like pepper, he chemicals in the packs leach the dangerous substances used in their manufacture into the food at a very high rate and this could be dangerous to one’s health.
6) ACUTE HEALTH EFFECTS are generally irritation of the skin, eyes, and upper respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal effects
7) WEAKENS IMMUNE SYSTEM
Short and long term exposure has been found to decrease animals capability to fight infection." In other words, prolonged exposure to atmospheric ozone above legal limits might severely damage the immune system
8) ORGAN DAMAGE
Chronic exposure to high levels of styrene can cause health effects such as liver and nerve tissue damage. It can also cause minor effects on kidney function
9) REDUCE FERTILITY IN MEN
BPA is an endocrine disruptor and is known as a compound xenoestrogen which are chemicals that mimic estrogen, disrupting the development of sperm cells. The result is lower sperm count, poor sperm health, and difficulty conceiving.
So first of all, which chemicals? let’s focus on a class of chemicals called phthalates. And these are chemicals, a pretty big class, that make plastics soft and flexible, also present in cosmetics and personal care products, room fresheners, and anything fragranced. These chemicals have the ability to lower testosterone. And I did a series of studies to look for it in humans. Other chemicals involved that are important is Bisphenol A, the bisphenols, which are estrogenic and also interfere with reproduction and your development and lots of things in our bodies… (Shanna Swan, a leading environmental and reproductive epidemiologist who has authored the book “Count Down” on the subject, and is also professor of environmental and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai hospital joins).
Due to its commonality, polystyrene has contaminated and effected both the environment and our health. When thrown away as trash, polystyrene cannot biodegrade or breakdown via other means, remaining in the environment for thousands of years. Keep in mind; plastics cover 25-30 percent of space in landfills. Foam polystyrene has been found in water and wind, especially at shores, making up for a considerable amount of marine debris. This also affects animals in the wild, due to broken down bits of polystyrene obstructing their airways, contaminating their resources, and causing cancer and digestive problems. The polystyrene manufacturing process is the 5th largest creator of hazardous waste. The process of making polystyrene pollutes the air and creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste. Polystyrene is manufactured with HCFC-22, a green house gas that affects the ozone layer, and petroleum, a non-sustainable and highly polluting resource
There have not yet been enough studies to know whether the relatively small amounts of styrene from PS foam cups and food containers are enough to cause health effects. But the fact remains that ingested styrene will build up in human tissue and we know from studies of other chemicals that long term, constant exposure to small amounts of foreign substances, especially those that mimic hormones, causes problems. So, it makes sense to avoid polystyrene as much as possible.