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Styrene is used to make polystyrene which is used to make plastics and foam containers.

What is styrene?

Styrene is a colorless to yellow liquid that has a sweet, floral smell in its pure form. It can contain other chemicals that give it a sharp, unpleasant smell. Other names for styrene are ethenylbenzene, phenylethylene, styrol, cinnamene, and vinyl benzene. Styrene is highly flammable and evaporates easily. It is a volatile organic compound. The chemical formula for styrene is C8H8.

Styrene is widely used to make plastics, fiberglass, rubber, and latex. It is used to make polystyrene plastics and resins. Polystyrene can be made into foam and rigid plastic products such as cups, plates, trays, utensils, packaging, and packing peanuts. Polystyrene products have a #6 recycling symbol on them.

Products that contain polystyrene include insulation, packaging, plastic pipes, refrigerator liners, conveyor belts, automobile parts, and electrical devices. Styrene is used in the manufacturing of other products such as tires, hoses, tanks, carpet backing, coatings, paint, and metal cleaners. Styrene is used to make resins for construction materials, boats, tubs, and shower stalls.

Consumer products that are made with styrene or polystyrene include luggage, shoes, toys, food containers, floor tiles, floor waxes and polishes, adhesives, putties, and varnishes. Styrene is also used to make resins for various office products, such as photocopier toners and computer printer cartridges.

Styrene is also used in paper processing and making dental fillings.

Cigarette smoke and automobile exhaust contain styrene. Low levels of styrene occur naturally in some foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, beverages, and meats.

How might I be exposed to styrene?

You can be exposed to styrene at work and at home. Daily exposure to styrene by the non-smoking population is expected to be much lower than for industrial workers exposed to styrene.

Workers in certain jobs can be exposed to much higher levels of styrene than the general population. Workers in the reinforced plastics industry are exposed to the highest levels of styrene at work. They include workers who make boats, car and truck parts, tanks, bath tubs, and shower stalls.

Workers in the styrene-butadiene rubber industry can be exposed to lower but significant levels of styrene than plastics workers. Long-term workers at photocopy centers may also be exposed to higher levels of styrene than the general population.

You may be exposed to low levels of styrene if you work at a nuclear power plant, petrochemical facility, printing plant, paper processing plant, wood coating facility, toll booth, or waste incinerator.

You may also be exposed if you are a fire fighter or taxidermist. You may be exposed if you work as a painter, construction worker, floor finisher, dentist, food industry worker, carpet installer, or auto repair worker.

The greatest source of exposure to styrene for the general population is cigarette smoking. The exposure from cigarette smoking is about 10 times the level of all other non-industrial sources combined. The styrene exposure of smokers is about six times that of non-smokers.

Daily exposure to styrene for people who don't smoke or work in industry is low. You can be exposed to low levels of styrene by breathing indoor air or eating food stored in polystyrene containers.  High levels of styrene in the home may come from building materials, consumer products, tobacco smoke, photocopiers, and laser printers.

You can also be exposed to styrene in outdoor air through emissions from industries using or manufacturing styrene, automobile exhaust, and cigarette smoke. Levels of styrene in outdoor air are lower than in indoor air. 

You may be exposed to styrene in drinking water, groundwater, or soil. You may be exposed if you live near an industrial facility, hazardous waste site, landfill, or incinerator that handles styrene, or in an area with significant vehicle traffic.

How can styrene affect my health?

Styrene is listed as “reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen” in the Twelfth Report on Carcinogens published by the National Toxicology Program because it has been linked to leukemia, lymphoma, and other stem, blood, and bone marrow cancers. It has also been linked to genetic damage and increased risk of cancer of the esophagus and pancreas.

People exposed to high levels of styrene at work are at a much greater risk of experiencing health effects than the general non-smoking population.

Occupational exposure to styrene may affect the central nervous system. Exposure may irritate the eyes, nose, throat, and respiratory system. Exposure may cause headache, weakness, dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, fatigue, vertigo, feeling drunk, and lack of coordination.

Exposure may also cause nausea, abdominal pain, skin sensitivity, dermatitis, asthma, stomach effects, depression, and problems with concentration and balance.

Long-term exposure may cause brain disease, liver damage, nerve tissue damage, effects on kidney function, occupational asthma, damage to the central nervous system, impaired hearing, altered color vision, and reproductive effects.

Skin contact with liquid styrene can cause first-degree burns.

If you think your health has been affected by exposure to styrene, contact your health care professional.

For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

This description is based on the information found in the Web links listed with this topic.


More Links
Basic Information about Styrene in Drinking Water (Environmental Protection Agency)
Map of Releases of Styrene in the United States. TOXMAP (National Library of Medicine)
Styrene (Environmental Protection Agency)
Styrene. Haz-Map (National Library of Medicine)
Styrene. Hazardous Substances Data Bank (National Library of Medicine)
Styrene. ToxFAQs (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)
Styrene. Twelfth Report on Carcinogens (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) (PDF — 363 KB)
Styrene. Workplace Safety and Health Topics (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

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Last Updated: August 14, 2013

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