Most of the carpeting used in homes and commercial buildings relies on SB Latex, a styrene-based product. Carpets are made by inserting the fibers, or pile, into a webbed plastic backing. A secondary backing is then applied to the pile and plastic backing to provide stability. SB Latex is the product that acts as the glue, or binder, that holds everything together.
Styrene is often confused with polystyrene foam (frequently called Styrofoam®, which is actually a trademarked name for foam insulation), but in fact it is the monomer from which polystyrene is derived. Styrene, a liquid, and polystyrene, a solid, are fundamentally different. Polystyrene is inert and has no odor of styrene. Polystyrene is often used in applications where hygiene is important, such as health care and food service products.
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Many safety products for children, from bike helmets to car safety seats, are made using styrene-based plastics.
In addition to being made commercially for hundreds of important uses, very low levels of styrene occur naturally in certain foods, such as strawberries, cinnamon, beef, coffee beans, and nuts. It is also found naturally in other foods and beverages, including cheese, wine, and beer. It should come as no surprise that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration permits polystyrene plastic containers—made from styrene—for food-contact uses.
You need not travel to the United Kingdom to experience Stonehenge. You can have it just a few miles outside of Washington, D.C., where you will find an exact replica of the ancient site made entirely from polystyrene. “Foamhenge,” formerly located on the property of the famed Natural Bridge of Virginia and now standing at Cox Farms in Centreville, Virginia, is open to the public during limited hours. The Smithsonian Channel exclaims, “It’s a Foamnomena.”
Since it was founded in 1987, the Styrene Information & Research Center has invested more than $25 million in new and often cutting-edge research as part of its commitment to product stewardship. This research enhances our understanding of the possible health effects of exposure to styrene and helps improve workplace safety.
Glass fiber reinforcement is produced at one of the more than 5,000 manufacturing facilities that work with styrene derivatives in the United States.
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Donated organs and many vaccines that must be kept at low temperatures often are shipped in containers insulated with polystyrene foam to ensure that they reach their destinations in the required condition for transplant or use.
Styrene-based materials are enhancing motoring safety worldwide, including composites used to build bridge components that last longer, road safety barriers that transmit energy away from the source of impact, and rubber for tires with a better grip on pavement, wet or dry.
Since 1980, polystyrene foam insulation has been used for a wide variety of Winter Olympic venues, including ski jumps, bobsled and luge courses, indoor and outdoor ice surfaces, and the Olympic Villages. It is particularly valued for the way it enables ice surfaces to be maintained at the highest standards needed for Olympic competition.
Natural styrene was first extracted from the Turkish sweetgum tree (also called Levant styrax, after which styrene is named). Styrene also occurs in the similarly named, but unrelated, styrax tree. The natural resin can be used as incense or to add a vanilla-like scent, while the oil has a woody aroma.
Auto racetrack wall barriers padded with expanded polystyrene help save drivers’ and spectators’ lives. “I’m able to walk away from a 200-mile-an-hour hit,” driver Kurt Busch said after his car struck a padded barrier during the 2002 Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
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When you watch the blades of a giant wind turbine turning high above the rim of a hill, it is quite likely those blades and other key turbine parts are made from a styrene-based composite. In fact, styrene composites are central to the production of “green” energy, including solar panels.
Styrene is used to produce long-lasting septic tanks, provide corrosion-resistant components for wastewater treatment plants, and to reline municipal sewer pipes without needing to dig up streets—applications we typically don’t think about, but that are important to clean water and healthy communities.
Hollywood relies on polystyrene foam to create many parts of sets, including building facades and landscape elements.
Styrene is an essential component of ballistic panels for military vehicles, barracks, and common facilities, helping to keep our troops safe overseas.
Across the country, approximately 5,000 manufacturing plants produce styrene or fabricate styrene-based products, equating to about 253,000 jobs.