What’s Styrene?

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Styrene is a colorless liquid used to make rubber and plastic components. It can be found naturally in some plants and is synthesized from ethylbenzene. During WWII, it was used to make synthetic rubber. Styrene is used in various industries and can pose health risks as a suspected carcinogen. It degrades quickly in the environment but can be released from building materials and food packaging.

Styrene is an organic hydrocarbon used to manufacture rubber and plastic components. Also known as vinyl benzene, styrene is a colorless liquid that evaporates quickly when exposed to air. Although it is an aromatic monomer with a slightly sweet odor, its odor can be unpleasant in high concentrations or when mixed with other chemicals. If its molecules link together to form long styrene chains, it becomes polystyrene, an aromatic polymer with thermoplastic properties.

Although styrene is produced from petroleum on a commercial scale, it also occurs naturally in some plants, including fruits, nuts and vegetables. In fact, it received its name in honor of the Styrax genus of trees that produce a sap from which benzoin resin is obtained. Its alternative name of vinylbenzene probably derives from the fact that it is synthesized from ethylbenzene, which is the product of benzene and ethylene undergoing catalytic dehydrogenation. Styrene molecules also contain a vinyl (ethenyl) group that shares electrons in a reaction known as a covalent bond. This process is what allows the synthetic chemical to be turned into plastics, such as polystyrene, synthetic rubber, and latex.

During World War II, styrene production was at its peak in the United States due to the need for synthetic rubber, as most of the natural rubber production areas were held by the Japanese at the time. A replacement was secretly made by manufacturing a copolymer of butadiene and styrene known as Government Rubber Styrene (GRS). In the mid-1940s, GRS production exceeded twice the level of natural rubber production before the start of the war. During the war, this material was mainly used to make tires for the military. However, this invention has remained unchanged as GRS is still used in the production of all types of tires in the United States today.

In other industries, styrene is used to make all kinds of products, from shoes to rubber backing for carpets. However, this material is also used to make car and boat parts, plumbing pipes, fiberglass, insulation, some building materials, and electrical components. It is also used to make plastic cups and food storage containers.

Styrene has little, if any, environmental impact as it degrades rapidly in the open air and evaporates from soil and water. However, some health risks of styrene have been noted. First, the International Agency for Research on Cancer considers styrene a suspected carcinogen. In addition to direct handling, exposure to this substance can occur from inhalation of automobile exhaust, cigarette smoke, and the presence of building materials that contain styrene. Additionally, styrene can be released when using a copier or leached out when eating foods packaged in a Styrofoam container.

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