Dangers of Styrofoam Containers With Hot Liquids

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Coffee is frequently sold in Styrofoam cups.
Coffee is frequently sold in Styrofoam cups. (Image: Ableimages/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Styrofoam cups are commonly used for hot drinks or liquid meals such as soup. While Styrofoam is convenient to use, there are some concerns about the potential health risks associated with the material. Styrofoam is particularly unsafe when heated or used with hot liquids and has been associated with some cancers and well as other potential health problems.

Polystyrene and Leaching

Styrofoam is actually a commercial term, but the name has come to refer to any food or drink containers that are made of polystyrene. Polystyrene is used to serve hot liquids like coffee or soup because it insulates the liquid and stays cool on the outside so the drinker will not burn his hand. Unfortunately, hot liquids or microwave use can cause the Styrofoam to melt or break down, causing the chemicals benzene and styrene to leach into the liquid inside. The person drinking the liquid in turn ingests the chemicals, which can cause health problems.

Health Risks

The chemicals found in Styrofoam are possible carcinogens and can contribute to a variety of cancers including breast and prostate cancer. Cancer is not the only health issue associated with polystyrene. Styrene can mimic the properties of the female hormone estrogen and cause thyroid problems as well as menstrual irregularities. Excessive exposure to styrene can also affect a person's central nervous system, resulting in general fatigue, headaches, depression and kidney problems. Other effects of styrene exposure include skin and eye irritation, gastrointestinal problems, low hemoglobin and platelet counts, and abnormalities with chromosomes and the lymphatic system.

Danger of Scalding

No matter what container you are using, you must be careful of burning or scalding yourself or someone else when carrying or drinking from a cup filled with hot liquid. Since polystyrene cups remain cool to the touch on the outside, it is easy to forget that scalding hot liquid may be inside. Also, their flexible nature makes it easy to spill liquid when squeezing them too hard or if you're trying to snap on a plastic lid. Take precautions not to spill your cup when drinking a hot liquid and be sure to keep your Styrofoam cup away from children or pets.

Alternatives to Styrofoam

When possible, the best alternative to Styrofoam is a reusable ceramic cup. Ceramic cups are reusable, making them safer from an environmental standpoint, and also won't leach any dangerous chemicals into your drink. Wax-lined paper cups are another good alternative. While they don't keep as cool on the outside and will not provide thermal insulation, like ceramic cups they will not leach any styrene.

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