Polystyrene insulation materials

I have a friend who works with polystyrene insulation materials on construction sites and I\’m concerned for his health. Should I be?

— Clifford Koufman, Portland, Ore

“Affinity” programs were developed by credit card companies in an effort to attract more customers by associating their cards with other businesses or organizations. While consumers may be more familiar with such programs that allow them to build up discount points with retailers and car companies, or frequent flier miles with airlines, non-profit organizations are increasingly getting into the game by putting their logos on credit cards and garnering a small percentage of every sale.

Consumers like such programs because they can contribute to the charitable causes of their choice through the shopping they are already doing. Charities like them because they reap donations with hardly any effort. And credit card companies benefit by gaining access and marketing to millions of potential new customers.

Plastic-wielding environmental advocates can choose credit cards benefiting the Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, Humane Society of the United States, National Audubon Society and Wilderness Society, among many others. The credit card companies usually donate one-half of one percent to the nonprofit for every purchase, balance transfer or cash advance. Typically, the groups also get a donation for each new cardholder they sign up and for each renewal.

Some 55,000 card-carrying members of the Sierra Club have donated more than $1 million to the group since it started its affinity program in 1986. And the Humane Society of the United States reports that its decade-old affinity credit card program with MBNA has accounted for donations of hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from 37,000 account holders.

Working Assets is another affinity program worth considering for anyone who wants a portion of the consumer dollar to help environmental and other charitable causes. The company, according to its Web site, has generated over $47 million for nonprofits since it began in 1985, helping such organizations as Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, Oxfam America and Human Rights Watch. The company\’s long distance and wireless phone services also donate to nonprofits and allow their customers to have a say as to which organizations receive donations and how much.

Consumer advocates warn, though, that racking up credit card debt is not economically responsible even if payments benefit charities. And customers should beware that affinity cards usually have higher interest rates than other cards. Also, savvy marketers have realized that pasting scenic photos of forests, mountains or wildlife on credit cards can attract more customers even without a specific donation-based affinity tie.

Web sites such as CardRatings.com and CreditCardGuide.org can help potential customers see the forest for the trees when it comes to signing up for credit cards, affinity-based or otherwise.

Polystyrene insulation materials

I have a friend who works with polystyrene insulation materials on construction sites and I\’m concerned for his health. Should I be?

— Taryn H. Eldredge, via e-mail

Occasional exposure to polystyrene, more commonly known by Dow Chemical’s trade name Styrofoam, is not likely to do any harm to one’s health. But workers exposed to the material for prolonged periods on a regular basis should take heed. The United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) warns that chronic exposure can irritate the skin, eyes, upper respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts, and lead to central nervous system damage and compromised kidney function.

Polystyrene is a plastic manufactured by blowing air at high pressure into styrene, a naturally occurring petroleum byproduct. Initially, environmental groups criticized the polystyrene production process for its use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which cause ozone depletion, as blowing agents. But an international agreement in 1987 banned CFCs, so polystyrene makers shifted to less harmful manufacturing methods.

However, concerns continue about the widespread distribution of polystyrene throughout our society. Toxicologists report that all Americans have at least trace amounts of styrene in their bloodstreams, no doubt leaked from Styrofoam food containers, packing materials and insulation, if not from mother’s milk directly (as studies have borne out). And, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “several epidemiological studies suggest there may be an association between styrene exposure and an increased risk of leukemia and lymphoma.” The EPA classifies styrene as a “possible human carcinogen.”

In 1990, environmentalists convinced McDonald’s to abandon polystyrene “to go” boxes and cups — which could leak styrene into food and drinks — in favor of non-toxic, recycled cardboard and paper containers. Prior to the decision, McDonald’s had been the largest consumer of polystyrene products in the world.

Today that dubious distinction goes to the construction industry, which uses polystyrene as lightweight, rot-free and highly efficient insulation and for other purposes. Minimizing exposure, including wearing masks and gloves, is key to preventing health effects. And construction workers handling polystyrene should take the advice of Dow Chemical itself: “When large quantities of the boards are stored indoors, it is recommended that the building be ventilated to allow a minimum of two air changes per hour.”

The increasing production of polystyrene is also a big waste issue. It is not biodegradable and is one of the most difficult plastics to recycle. Thus, polystyrene is starting to clog landfills around the United States and beyond.

Some alternatives to polystyrene for insulation include recycled polystyrene, which addresses solid waste concerns but not health issues, and cellulose (made from newspaper and cardboard and available from Celbar, among others). Natural cotton fiber, such as that made by UltraTouch, is also a healthier alternative for construction workers and homeowners alike, and is available at Phoenix Organics, among other online retailers. Another good choice is straw insulation, which is enjoying renewed interest in the building trade. Straw is both widely available and renewable, and is about half the cost of polystyrene.

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