INSIGHT: Styrene carcinogen worries spread

04 November 2011 14:31  [Source: ICIS news]

By Andy Brice

US declares styrene to be anticipated human carcinogenLONDON (ICIS)--The carcinogenic status of styrene monomer (SM) continues to rankle in the US, with market players and trade associations still airing their grievances about its inclusion on a list of possible cancer-causing chemicals in the summer.

The contagion has spread across the Atlantic and European players are anxiously awaiting the response to proposals to give the monomer CMR (Carcinogenic, Mutagenic, Reprotoxic) 1b status.

A Proposal for Harmonised Classification and Labelling from Denmark’s Environmental Protection Agency has been made public in the past few weeks.

The move is causing widespread concern and is likely to heap further pressure on users in the region, according to Wilfrid Gambade, business director of Netherlands-based DSM's Switzerland-headquartered DSM Composite Resins.

Denmark and Sweden are pushing for styrene to be awarded CMR 1b status in Europe. They have submitted their arguments to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), having started working on the report in December 2010.

Gambade said that DSM was hoping to share its views on the move by the middle of November.

The use of styrene is coming under scrutiny in Europe just months after the aromatic was included among eight new substances on a revised list of possible cancer causing chemicals by the US Department of Health and Human Services.

The department’s 12th Report on Carcinogens was published on 10 June and listed styrene as “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogenic”.

The report claims that users may suffer health problems after prolonged exposure by inhalation.

There are already recommendations from the Styrene Reach Consortium in Europe regarding styrene and the maximum level of exposure.

In Europe, the Derived No Effect Levels - or DNEL - guidance says that 20 parts per million (ppm) should be the limit for those working around styrene.

This exposure level was decided by styrene consortia on the basis of sound scientific evidence, although the implementation varies throughout the region, according to Gambade. In the UK, for example, the government has set a generous threshold of 100ppm whereas other countries argue that it should be below 20ppm.

Styrene is produced from benzene and ethylene and is used in a range of plastics and synthetic rubbers. End use markets include automotive, food and construction.

It is still too early to determine whether demand for the chemical has been adversely affected by its inclusion in the US report but it has clearly increased uncertainty and fear in the composites sector, said Gambade.

Styrene's new status sent shockwaves through the market and has seen many US chemical organisations rally to fight the ruling. Gambade pointed out, however, that inclusion on the list is rarely overturned.

Although the move technically only affected the US, other regions are starting to raise concerns. Some fear that the move may encourage customers to use more-expensive and less-effective substitutes for styrene-based products. There is also speculation that this could lead to job losses and firms going out of business.

“This has created a lot of questions from our customers,” said Gambade. “As a major supplier to this market, everything has changed since that day in June.

“At DSM, we always look at the situation from a customer’s point of view; they see that styrene has been listed on the NTP [National Toxicology Program], and that the Swedish and Danish are pushing for change as well - all in a very short period of time. Our customers are understandably worried. However, at DSM we stick with the scientific position and as far as we know there is no clear evidence that styrene is a CMR.”

Gambade said that DSM anticipated this situation arising more than a decade ago and therefore started to develop a range of styrene-free resins. Based on methacrylates the range was launched a few weeks ago. There are also two other product technologies in the pipeline, which he anticipates will be launched in 2012 and 2013.

“We believe that with this complete styrene-free product range, at least 50% of conventional UPR [unsaturated polyester resins] applications can be served,” said Gambade. “Our products are at least at the same performance level of styrene-containing equivalents.”

DSM also resigned from Cefic’s UPR Group in August because membership was constraining the company’s ambitions, said Gambade.

Styrene is a volatile reactive monomer used to dissolve UPR in fibre reinforced plastic applications.

“It had been very difficult to take a clear position and communicate to our customers about our development and innovation,” he said.

“At the end of the day, we don’t want to kill this market, we want to save it. We’re investing a lot and we needed to take the decision to either stop and play the volume game or continue our strategy of innovation and sustainability.”

Gambade said that although the composite industry should strive to ensure workshop emissions are minimised, it should also be developing suitable sustainable alternatives.

“We wanted to go beyond what Cefic was doing and prepare a plan B - we had a long debate about taking such a step. Being part of the group was very much reactive rather than proactive,” he said.

“Our composites industry will ultimately be at risk if we are not able to offer sustainable solutions. If we are not able to propose something for the long term then our customers will switch to some other kind of chemistry,” added Gambade.

For more on styrene see ICIS chemical intelligence

By: Andy Brice
+44 20 8652 3214

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