A group of Democrats complain Styrofoam cups in the House cafeteria could contain carcinogens.
In a letter to Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and other Republican leaders, the nine Democrats say the Styrofoam cups and other dining materials could hold chemical components that could cause cancer. The Democrats are upset with the switch to Styrofoam from recyclable materials put into place when Democrats ran the House.
The letter asks Boehner to reconsider the switch away from recyclable to polystyrene-based foam containers, and warns that the health of visitors to the Capitol could be compromised.
"The irresponsibility of the decision to use polystyrene foam without considering other options is all the more egregious because the cafeteria is not merely used by House members and our staffers," the lawmakers write. "The health of constituents and visitors to the Hill who eat in the cafeteria will be impacted by this short-sighted decision."
The change to Styrofoam caused a stir among some staffers and Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill late last month, when the recyclable material preferred by former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was replaced. Lawmakers mostly raised concerns about Styrofoam's impact on the environment.
Republicans have downplayed the harmful health and environmental effects of Styrofoam and said that the composting program in place under Pelosi cost too much money and did not do enough to bring down energy consumption.
But the Democratic letter cited toxicology studies that claim polystyrene contains "possible human carcinogens" and could present other health challenges, such as headaches, hearing loss, central nervous system dysfunction and difficulty sleeping.
"Eliminating polystyrene-related health impacts will result in fewer lost work days and lower heath insurance costs for the House and its staff," the lawmakers write. "This benefit alone should outweigh any cost savings from using polystyrene containers."
The "Dear Colleague" notice soliciting signatures from other lawmakers, which was circulated by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), is titled "Cancer Causing Cups in the Cafeteria?"
The other lawmakers who signed the letter are Reps. James Moran (D-Va.), George Miller (D-Calif.), Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), Susan Davis (D-Calif.) and Chellie Pingree (D-Maine).
Here is the full letter from the nine Democrats:
March 11, 2011
Dear Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Cantor, and Chairman Lungren:
We are writing to express our deep concern with the current choice to use polystyrene products, commonly known as “styrofoam,” in the House of Representatives cafeterias. While we appreciate that the CAO is working to reduce costs, there are significant health and environmental risks associated with styrofoam, as well as additional costs associated with increased waste removal. These external costs should be considered in making the decision for cafeteria products; the desire to save a few pennies should never come at the expense of jeopardizing staff, members and visitors’ health. Over 20 years ago, McDonalds and other fast food restaurants replaced polystyrene foam with recyclable and paperboard containers. More than 100 cities have also chosen to ban polystyrene foam for health and environmental reasons. Adopting the same standard is the least we can do.
We have numerous concerns about the safety of polystyrene foam products. Polystyrene foam products can leach their component chemicals into the foods and liquids they contain. Leaching of styrene and benzene is documented with nearly 40 years of scientific evidence, as are the resulting negative health impacts. During the manufacturing process, acute short-term exposure to styrene can result in irritation to the eyes, nose, throat, and mucous membranes as well as gastrointestinal effects.
Over time, exposure to the styrene that leaches into food and liquids can cause extensive health effects, including fatigue, headaches, hearing loss, central nervous system dysfunction, difficulty sleeping, as well as low platelet and hemoglobin values and chromosomal abnormalities. The International Association for Research on Cancer classified styrene as a potential human carcinogen. Eliminating polystyrene-related health impacts will result in fewer lost work days and lower heath insurance costs for the House and its staff. This benefit alone should outweigh any cost savings from using polystyrene containers.
Polystyrene foam products continue to threaten public health and the environment after they are used and discarded. Polystyrene is not easily or cheaply recycled, and there are significant health and environmental impacts from the 25 million polystyrene foam cups that are thrown away per year. When disposed of in landfills, products made of polystyrene take over half a millennium to biodegrade. While in landfills, polystyrene chemicals can leach into groundwater, jeopardizing water quality. The safe incineration of polystyrene foam requires extremely high heat in specialized plants. Incineration at normal heat levels releases over 90 different hazardous chemicals, polluting the air quality of those communities surrounding the waste plants and burdening them with increased health risks and costs.
Although we strongly support efforts to reduce costs in the federal government, it is our understanding that the cafeteria operations generate profits for the House – an estimated $879,000 for 2010. Any costs associated with composting or any of the other environmentally sound options were always meant to be offset by these profits. Those of us who are concerned about the health and safety of Members, staff and visitors feel that this is certainly a worthwhile use for these proceeds.
The irresponsibility of the decision to use polystyrene foam without considering other options is all the more egregious because the cafeteria is not merely used by House members and our staffers. The health of constituents and visitors to the Hill who eat in the cafeteria will be impacted by this short-sighted decision. We urge you to bear in mind our responsibility to protect the health and welfare of the American public, now and in future generations, and to reconsider the decision to use Polystyrene foam in our cafeteria.