WASHINGTON — Japan and South Korea have seen consumers shy away from polystyrene cups for noodles because of concerns about endocrine-disrupting chemicals leaking into food. But PS industry officials said at a recent seminar that a similar scenario seems unlikely for North America and Europe.
The Polystyrene Global Forecast, held Nov. 17 in Washington, was sponsored by the Polystyrene Packaging Council, a unit of the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
Potential problems in noodle cups quickly gained widespread attention in Asia because the cups are a convenience-food staple, and seminar members said they are as widespread as PS coffee cups in the United States.
In Korea, noodle-cup sales dropped 30-40 percent this summer, after reports surfaced that styrene dimer and trimer were found in the soup. News reports connected the styrene with endocrine disruption, said Hyo-Shik Shin, general mamager of planning for the Korea Foam-Styrene Recycling Association.
However, consumption increased again after the industry ran advertisements, so that it is now only down about 10 percent, he told seminar participants.
In Japan, news reports said PS cup sales were down 15 percent in the spring when the problems first surfaced, and the issue has gained widespread attention, But the industry also ran ads there and released studies defending itself, and the public is starting to calm down, said Noriaki Umeda, general manager of research and product development for A&M Styrene Co. Ltd. of Kawasaki, Japan.
Still, paper substitution is being tried in some markets, he said.
Some Japanese studies have found as many as 50 parts per billion of styrene oligomers in food packaged in PS noodle cups, but that is not enough to cause harm, according to Umeda.
Representatives of both the European and U.S. PS industries told the seminar they are about to release industry-funded studies, based on rats, that did not find endocrine disrupters being released at levels that would cause health problems. The European study tested 23 brands of PS under exaggerated exposure conditions and found no effects, while the U.S. study looked at seven samples and found no problems.
The industry does not plan more studies in North America because there is no significant evidence of a problem, said Fred Forrester, operations manager for Dart Container Corp. in Mason, Mich. A representative of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association in Mississauga, Ontario, said endocrine disrupters are not considered a problem with PS.
David Thomas, the European Chemical Industry Council sector group manager, said industry studies from the 1970s and 1996 have found some evidence of endocrine disrupters in effluents from PS production.
Several U.S. industry officials said they thought the problems have cropped up in Asia because local PS producers did not launch pre-emptive efforts to explain their evidence before the issue became controversial earlier this year.
Endocrine disrupter is a generic term for any chemical that mimics human hormones and interferes with the endocrine system.