Styrene monomer forms the basis of polystyrene, a plastic based in petroleum. Sold under the brand name Styrofoam, polystyrene is light in weight and actually consists of about 95 percent air. It insulates extremely well and appears in a wide variety of products, ranging from cups designed to maintain beverage temperatures to protective packing materials that keep everything from vases to laptops safe in the shipping process.
While polystyrene is an extremely versatile product, its makeup causes some significant health problems. Those who work with styrene, the central building block, run the risk of irritation of the upper respiratory tract, eyes and skin, as well as negative effects in the gastrointestinal tract. Renal function and neurological health are also at risk, and styrene is on the Environmental Protection Agency's list of potential human carcinogens.
The risks of using polystyrene do not end when the product is manufactured. Toxic chemicals have been detected leaking out of products into the items they contain, which is one reason why several major fast food chains have stopped serving food in it. The fact that more than 25 percent of all landfill space is occupied by plastics is still another reason to consider alternative materials for containers. While polystyrene is effective and easy to make, its effects are a concern.