What’s on the lunch menu in your school cafeteria? Pancakes, taco and pizza? How about carcinogens and hormone disruptors? If your school serves lunch on Styrofoam food service ware, your child is at risk. But there is a legislative solution – H.B. 6502.
Styrofoam, the common name for expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam, contains styrene, a chemical linked to health hazards, including cancer and hormone disruption. Styrene can be ingested when it migrates from Styrofoam products into hot or acidic foods, or directly when trays are scraped with utensils. So when students take a mouthful of chicken nuggets or pasta marinara served on Styrofoam wares, they may also consume toxic styrene. Children’s developing bodies are particularly susceptible to its effects, leaving them vulnerable to negative health consequences as they grow.
The World Health Organization and National Institutes of Health identified styrene as a cancer-causing chemical, and a growing body of evidence shows that Styrofoam exposure adversely impacts stress and sex hormones, affecting child development. Of particular concern are the over 225,000 students in Connecticut – 43% of all public school attendees – who qualify for free or reduced lunch. These children are at greater risk as they can consume breakfast, lunch and even dinner on polystyrene products on a daily basis for thirteen years or more. Students experiencing food insecurity have no options other than to eat meals at school, as packed meals in safer wares from home are not possible. While no one should be exposed to such toxins, these students can least afford such ill effects, since many are already burdened by economic disadvantage, lack of fair housing and open spaces and other environmental exposures to toxic materials.
While polystyrene is an inexpensive option for schools, the long-term health impacts on Connecticut children and other externalities are not reflected in that cost. And neither is the environmental toll of polystyrene use in schools. Styrofoam is not accepted in municipal recycling programs. In a typical year, hundreds of millions of Styrofoam trays and containers are tossed in the trash bins of school cafeterias, significantly adding unnecessary trash to an already stressed waste system in our state. These polystyrene products are burned to the detriment of air and soil quality and public health, particularly in environmental justice communities where incinerators are sited. Many of the same students exposed to styrene when eating lunch breathe in air polluted by facilities burning our trash in their neighborhoods.
How can we protect our children from the health and environmental impacts of Styrofoam products in schools? Pass H.B. 6502! Section one of the proposed bill phases out use of polystyrene wares in schools no later than July 1, 2023. School districts fortunately do not hesitate when it comes to spending for asbestos remediation, eliminating lead in water or removal of PCBs from soils on school properties. Yet, children, particularly our most vulnerable students, are needlessly exposed to toxic Styrofoam in the lunchrooms of Connecticut schools everyday.
There are many safer, sustainable food ware options available for cafeteria use, and schools throughout our nation have adopted them, including some of America’s largest school districts – Baltimore, Boston, Chicago and a dozen more – as part of the Urban School Food Alliance. According to a survey conducted by ReThink Disposable CT and BYOGreenwich, an ever-increasing number of Connecticut schools, including some of the most populous CEP-eligible districts, have already switched from polystyrene trays to safer, more sustainable disposable and even reusable wares. However, we need an equitable and healthy solution for all students in our state. H.B. 6502 is the answer. To those who contend that schools lack the funding for alternative wares, we argue that schools cannot afford not to invest in safer, more sustainable food service ware for the wellbeing of students and the environment. There are fiscal solutions on the table for possible increased costs, such as collective purchasing and grant opportunities.
Science supports the fact that polystyrene is not a healthy material to use in any food service ware for the safety of our children and environment. Styrofoam products have no place in our school cafeterias. We call on our legislators to recognize the serious environmental and health costs of Styrofoam, particularly to students participating in the National Lunch Program, and to vote in favor of H.B. 6502, the safer, more sustainable solution for all Connecticut students.
Julie DesChamps is the Founder of Waste Free Greenwich. Tammy Thornton is President of Wilton Go Green.