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The Hazards Of Styrofoam

By Francis Ewherido



On February 22, 2021, I wrote an article titled “Real and Metaphoric Floating Debris.” In the article I wrote about my experience at Ladipo Market, Lagos, where a heavy down pour caught up with me.

I complained about “empty food packs, plastic bottles of water and drinks, among other debris that were earlier disposed of indiscriminately.”

I was really pissed off with our attitude to keeping our environment clean. Among the debris I complained about were disposable empty food packs.

I did not realise that beyond being environmental nuisance, those packs are very hazardous to the environment and our health.

Recently the Lagos State Government placed a total ban on the usage and distribution of Styrofoam in Lagos State. Restaurants and food sellers use these Styrofoam as take away packs. As at the time I wrote that article, I was only conscious of the nuisance to the environment.

Now, I know that the sins of the Styrofoam food packs are legion. One, due to their indiscriminate disposal by Lagosians, they block drainage channels adding to flooding during rainy season. I am not surprised because I suspected from my experience at Ladipo Market. The roads and drains were flooded.

The Lagos State government also said that Styrofoam is hazardous to wild and aquatic life and animals that often mistake them for food. After consuming the Styrofoam, these creatures become toxic. These are the same fishes and animals we consume as food. Your guess is as good as mine. The government also said Styrofoam is dangerous to human health. This is understandable. For a Niger Delta man, anything dangerous to aquatic life will automatically be dangerous to our health. We live mainly on seafood, so it is no rocket science.

My great worry is how we allowed it to get into restaurants and “mama-put” as take away pack without proper enlightenment on how it should be handled? The World Centric wrote: “As early as the 1980’s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency demonstrated that styrene – the molecular building block of all polystyrene, including Styrofoam – was present in 100% of the samples of human fat that they collected from all 48 states in the continental United States.”

Better late than never. Lagos State is taking action, what about the other 35 states and the FCT Abuja? As a people, we need to be more proactive about such health-related issues.

The government also “said that the product was not recyclable and would remain the same after 100 years.” This really got me worried. We are in an era when recycling of waste and reducing or avoiding use of climate change substances are on the front burner and we have a widespread use of a product that is not recyclable. Any waste that cannot be recycled is not good news.

I decided to dig further to know what Styrofoam is all about. “Styrofoam is a trademark name for polystyrene, a petroleum-based chemical compound. It’s manufactured from styrene, a volatile colorless liquid. Studies have linked exposure to styrene to genetic damage to white blood cells and to certain blood cancers.

Polystyrene is considered safe for food use when in a solid state. However, heating can cause chemicals to leach into the food. Eating the contents of a melted foam container one time is unlikely to cause harm. However, repeated exposure, which can be cumulative, can be a health risk.”

The explanation there says it is considered safe when in solid form, but can cause chemicals to get into the food if heated. Ehen!  In many restaurants, it is heated with the food in microwave to make the food hot. That is a big problem. And now Styrofoam being linked with cancer is a deal breaker for me no matter how remote. Four people I know died of cancer in 2023.

“It is estimated that over 124,000 new cases of cancer were recorded in Nigeria in the year 2020 which resulted in 78,899 deaths.” That is a lot even if we are over 200m people. And trust me, these estimates are below actual figures. Illiteracy, poverty superstition amongst others make some cases go unreported. I do not have the figures for 2021 and 2022, but I will not be surprised if they are higher. Global Cancer Observatory says Nigeria has one of the highest cancer mortality rates in the world, with approximately four out of five cases resulting in death.

Early detection is crucial, but that is not the case with most Nigerians. King Charles III was diagnosed with cancer last week, but because of its early detection, it is looking like a routine ailment and treatment: “Although he will pause his public events, the King will continue with his constitutional role as head of state, including paperwork and private meetings.”

This is not the case with cancer patients in Nigeria. Some have died and those who survived the battle against cancer have scars to show for it. Nigeria still does not have an all-round plan to combat the scourge of cancer.

The National Health Insurance Authority (NHIA) Act 2022 had made health insurance mandatory for all Nigerians, but how far with the implementation? NHIA is expected to enroll all Nigerians, including cancer patients for health insurance. We are nowhere near achieving that. That is why I take sides with the Lagos State Government on this matter, though investors would lose money and there will be job losses.

The health of the people should take precedence. In all fairness to the Lagos State Government, pronouncement on the ban of Styrofoam was made over three years ago but was not enforced. So the three weeks’ notice it gave recently is on a matter that was already on. I sincerely symthatise with those who will be affected, but when you have a relative or friend who agonized in pains while waiting for the inevitable last breath, you will take side with the government.

I must confess that Styrofoam ban was not totally clear to me when the Lagos State Government placed the ban. My interest was the nuisance it posed to the environment. My shallow knowledge of chemistry was mainly responsible. As an arts student, I gave up on mathematics, chemistry and physics too soon. The teachers did not help matters, but no excuses. But you know, if you are driving and your front tyre runs into a pothole, you make efforts so the hind tyre will avoid the pothole. If both fall into the same pothole, your driving is questionable.

That is why I advised all my children to be grounded in both sciences and arts, not minding whether you are an arts or science student. It makes life easier later in life. You should not struggle with mathematics or English and your children will do same. It is not good enough.

If you see reports written by some wizards in the sciences or figures, reading them is worse than eating stone-riddled Abakaliki rice of old because of grammatical errors. For the arts-oriented people, they sweat even in air conditioned space while making presentations with data, graphs, etc. If you are going through this or you went through it, your children must never have the same experience. A well-rounded education will save your children this agony later in future.

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