Styrene industry vows to fight compound’s inclusion on list of cancer causes


The styrene folks are not amused — not amused at all — by the federal government’s addition of the compound to a list of substances that might cause cancer.

Representatives from — the Styrene Information and Research Center -- said they would fight “vigorously” to remove styrene’s new designation as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” That designation appears on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ most recent Report on Carcinogens. The industry group contends that the inclusion is “completely unjustified.”

In a news release Friday, the group condemned the inclusion, using terms such as “flawed process” and “preponderance of data” and tartly pointing out that the latest research by European scientists doesn’t support a link between styrene and cancer.


Styrene wasn’t the only substance singled out in the updated federal list. Two substances were labeled “known” carcinogens, including formaldehyde, and six were labeled as “reasonably” thought to be carcinogens, including styrene. That brings the official count to 240.

But as only styrene seems to be garnering any defense, here’s a little background on the compound.

Styrene is a clear liquid used in making plastics and rubber—the synthetic compound can be found in food packaging, containers, toys, kitchen appliances, building materials, office equipment and auto parts. As the industry group’s “uses and benefits” fact sheet notes, with a somewhat retro flair:

“You may be surprised….
how important products manufactured using styrene are to the quality of your daily life. Taking your morning shower, fixing meals in the kitchen, commuting in your car, working on your computer, and an evening watching television all depend on styrene-based products. As you’ll see, most of us encounter and use dozens of products made from styrene during the course of a normal day.”

People can come in contact with styrene by breathing in styrene vapors -- in particular, from building materials or, notably, cigarette smoke -- but the chemical is thought to pose the highest risk to industrial workers who might breathe in air with high levels of styrene or absorb the chemical through their skin.

That’s where the cancer connection comes in, but as a fact sheet from the National Toxicology Program points out, the link isn’t overwhelming in humans:


“The limited evidence for cancer from styrene in humans is from occupational studies showing increased risk for lymphohematopoietic cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma, and genetic damage in the white blood cells, or lymphocytes, of workers exposed to styrene.”

And the mechanism remains unknown:

“Exactly how styrene causes cancer is not fully understood, but styrene is converted, in laboratory animals and humans, to styrene-7,8-oxide, which is listed in the Report on Carcinogens as reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen. Styrene-7,8-oxide causes genetic damage and has been found in the blood of workers exposed to styrene.”

It’s worth noting that animal studies support the limited human evidence of a possible cancer risk, as the substance profile explains. That profile also expands on the risks of various types of exposure.

Workers can protect themselves by wearing gloves and clothing to cover their skin and by ensuring that the workplace is well ventilated, the National Toxicology Program factsheet continues.

The advice for everyone else might be more irritating to another large industry. It amounts to: Stop smoking. Especially around the kids.

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