Can you put the Styrofoam plate in the microwave? Can you get cancer from microwaving Styrofoam? And more importantly – does Styrofoam cause cancer too? These are the essential questions that we will be tackling today, since Styrofoam is still pretty much being used around the world, and some people are using them to heat food in microwave ovens.
Styrofoam and Microwave Ovens: A Bad Duo
Styrofoam is a type of polystyrene foam explicitly designed to insulate. It is used not only in packaging food and beverages but also in house insulation, to keep homes nice and cozy.
Styrofoam is petroleum-based and made with a lightweight material that provides high insulation even though the end product is fragile. Believe it or not, Styrofoam is 95% air. But can you put it inside a microwave oven?
On its own, Styrofoam cannot be broken down by microwave radiation. You may see some deformation, but that’s it – if the Styrofoam is placed alone in the microwave oven.
The problem, however, with placing Styrofoam plates and bowls in the microwave is that the food inside them can melt them. Microwave radiation excites the individual molecules of food (especially liquids), and the sharp increase in temperature can easily cause Styrofoam to melt.
The result is disastrous: as the Styrofoam is melting, chemicals will leach into the food or beverage, which makes the food poisonous and unfit for human consumption.
But worry not: some Styrofoam containers are designed to work correctly in microwave ovens. Try to find the mark that says that the container is microwave-safe before you put your food or beverage in the microwave. Otherwise, ditch the Styrofoam because it will likely ruin your diet.
Is Styrofoam Toxic?
To answer this question, we’ve come up with a list of essential facts about Styrofoam:
- One of the reasons why Styrofoam is being banned (or has already been banned) in many cities and countries is because it contains styrene, which has been linked to so many health conditions, from vision loss to cancer. It has also been associated with loss of hearing, as well as damage to the human nervous system.
While these advanced adverse effects may come about from heightened exposure to styrene, who would ever want to risk it, especially if there are other possible options?
- Placing hot food and beverages in Styrofoam damages the physical structure of Styrofoam and causes its compounds to break down and leak out.
This is the reason why low-quality Styrofoam products are the worst when it comes to hot food and beverages. You are playing Russian roulette if the food packaging is handling the temperatures well enough or not. The degradation of Styrofoam may not always be apparent, as chemical leaching is a largely invisible process.
- Workers who are exposed to styrene for years tend to develop terrifying symptoms and conditions like muscular weakness, chronic or repetitive headaches, some effects on the kidneys, and it can also affect the blood.
Sadly, styrene also appears to affect people’s mental health as some workers from Styrofoam facilities have reported developing depression as a result of prolonged exposure.
- One study from the medical journal Environ Pollut indicated that the continuous use of Styrofoam had caused a double-edged problem for the globe.
When Styrofoam is discarded into the environment, it does break down – but only physically. That means, it just gets smaller and smaller, until such time that marine animals have bits of Styrofoam nanoparticles in their skin, flesh, blood, etc.
The study indicates that these nanoparticles can do this through various absorption methods: through respiration, absorption through the skin, and ingestion, which we think is the most common route. These nanoparticles, because they are so small, they can interact with the molecules and proteins inside the cells of the body.
Styrofoam has been tagged by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a potentially carcinogenic compound, and it has been placed in the category carcinogenicity class B2. What this means is that frequent exposure to styrene and nanoparticles from broken down Styrofoam can and will be adverse to anyone’s health.
- An associated study published in Soft Matter indicated that compounds from Styrofoam could and will penetrate biomembranes in living organisms. On a grander scale of things, if people frequently heated Styrofoam in their microwave ovens, they are ingesting the poisonous compounds that are used to manufacture Styrofoam in the first place.
- A person can get something that is called “styrene sickness,” which usually begins with inexplicable headaches, followed by signs of bodily fatigue.
Some reports have indicated that the affected person can also experience feelings of being inebriated or drunk, even though no alcohol was ingested. In related animal tests, lab mice were seen to have developed lung tumors after prolonged and repeated exposure to compounds found in Styrofoam.
- The only safe time that you can use Styrofoam is when you use it for beverages and food that are cold and not hot or warm. Unfortunately, a lot of restaurants and food/beverage manufacturers still use Styrofoam for hot food/beverages.
This includes manufacturers of on-the-go instant coffee, ramen and other kinds of noodles, and the like. In Asia, it is relatively common to purchase noodle products that require the consumer to pour boiling water into the Styrofoam containers.
Manufacturers do not place warnings about the risks of consuming the food in the Styrofoam containers at all and leave the customers to fend for themselves.
- By the looks of it, the safest recourse is to avoid using Styrofoam altogether, especially for hot food and beverages. There is simply too much risk associated with its use, and the potential damage to the body is excellent compared to the benefits of using it. Fortunately, people are already shifting to organic packaging nowadays.