Styrene is commonly found in polystyrene foam (styrofoam), a material used for making models and maquettes. In 2014, styrene had been “reasonably anticipated” to be a “human carcinogen” by the National Research Council and now the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis plans to ban its use by next fall.
Styrene is also found ABS and even rubber, though it’s toxicity in these compounds is still up for debate. As news of polystyrene’s hazardous potential spreads however, schools and even cities have started to ban the substance.
As reported the university’s independent newspaper Student Life, “As of June 2015, cities in 10 different states have officially banned styrene with three others considering to follow suit.” New York was one of those cities, banning EPS (Expanding Polystyrene Foam) due the how difficult it can be to recycle. “These products cause real environmental harm and have no place in New York City. We have better options,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio back in June last year. The ban was later overturned. With regards the compound’s environmental impact, propylene has subsequently surfaced as a viable alternative.
The material is inexpensive and easy to work with, however, when used for model-making styrene has a tendency to be inhaled. This is especially the case when particles enter the air after being melted or laser cut. The Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry outline the consequences of inhalation listing nausea, respiratory problems and in some cases liver damage. The full list of health defects post styrene exposure can be found here and here.
Sophomore student Eve Bobrow spoke of her experience with styrene exposure to student life. “When everyone is using it, you could definitely feel a difference in the air,” she said in Student Life. “Sometimes I have to leave studio because I get such bad headaches. There were even times where I felt like I had chronic headaches because everyone was using styrene for their final models.”
Fellow sophomore Kevin He said how despite being in his second year at Sam Fox, the issues styrene can cause were never fully detailed. “When I came into the art school, the professors just told us that styrene was dangerous, but never told us about all the problems with it,” he said. “We never had a safety tutorial. I learned how to use styrene through trial and error and out of all the materials we use here, styrene puts us in the most amount of danger.”