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Skip Navigation LinksPennsylvania Department of Health > My Health > Environmental Health > Environmental Fact Sheets > Styrene



What is Styrene?
Styrene is primarily a synthetic chemical.  It is a colorless liquid that evaporates easily and has a sweet smell.  It often contains other chemicals that may give it a sharp, unpleasant smell.  It does not readily dissolve in water.
Billions of pounds are produced each year to make products such as rubber, plastic, insulation, fiberglass, pipes, automobile parts, food containers, and carpet backing.  Most of these products contain styrene linked together in a long chain (polystyrene) as well as unlinked styrene monomer.  Low levels of styrene also occur naturally in a variety of foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, beverages, and meats.  Styrene can be found in air, soil, and water after release from the manufacture, use, and disposal of styrene-based products.
What happens to styrene when it enters the environment?
� It is quickly broken down in the air, usually within 1 to 2 days. 
� It evaporates from shallow soils and surface water. 
� It does not stick to soils and sediments. 
� It is broken down by bacteria in the soil and water and is not expected to build up in animals. � It breaks down to half the amount within a few days in surface water. 
� It breaks down in groundwater, but it takes between 6 weeks and 7.5 months.
How might I be exposed to styrene?
� Breathing indoor air that is contaminated with styrene vapors from building materials, consumer products, and tobacco smoke.  
� Breathing the contaminated workplace air.  
� Drinking contaminated water. 
� Living near industrial facilities or hazardous waste sites.  
� Smoking cigarettes or eating a lot of food packaged in polystyrene containers.

How can styrene affect my health?
As with any chemical, the effects on health depend on the amount of exposure (dose), how someone is exposed (breathing and drinking) and how long someone is exposed (duration).
If you breathe high levels of styrene for a short time, you are most likely to experience nervous system effects such as depression, a feeling of intoxication, muscle weakness, tiredness and nausea, and possibly eye, nose, and throat irritation.
When animals breathed styrene vapors in short-term studies, they damaged the lining of their noses.  Long-term exposure damaged their livers, but there is no evidence that this will occur in people.  There is little information on human health effects from eating or touching styrene.  Animal studies show that ingestion of high levels of styrene over several weeks can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, brain, and lungs.  There is no information as to whether breathing, ingesting, or touching styrene affects fetal development or human reproduction.  In animal studies, short-term exposure to very high levels resulted in some reproductive and developmental effects.
How likely is styrene to cause cancer?
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that styrene is possibly carcinogenic to humans.  
Is there a medical test to show whether I have been exposed to styrene?
Styrene and its breakdown products can be measured in your blood, urine, and body tissues.  Styrene leaves your body quickly.  If you are tested within one day, the actual amount can be estimated.  While this laboratory test may confirm one�s exposure, it is difficult to correlate this exposure measurement with any health effect.
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
The EPA has determined that 0.1 part of styrene per million parts of water (0.1 ppm) is the maximum amount that may be present in drinking water.

The Occupational Heath and Safety Administration (OSHA) has limited workers� exposure to an average of 100 ppm in air for an 8-hour workday, 40-hour work week.

The Federal Drug Administration has determined that styrene concentration in bottled drinking water should not exceed 0.1 ppm.

Reference:  ToxFAQs for Styrene, U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.