Dr. Robert Cook - Is It Bad For You? Approved by Dr. Robert Cook

Are Packing Peanuts Bad For You?

Also Known As: foam peanuts



Short answer

Traditional packing peanuts can release toxic substances like styrene, a potential carcinogen, and may contain harmful flame retardants. Biodegradable variants from natural materials like wheat and corn starch are safer but can contain allergens. Minimize health risks by reducing skin contact, ensuring good ventilation, and disposing of them properly.



Long answer

Potential Chemical Toxins in Packing Peanuts

When it comes to unpacking boxes, packing peanuts are a common sight. They cushion our fragile items during shipping, but what do we know about the substances that make up these squishy protectors? Quite a bit, actually. Traditional packing peanuts are usually made from polystyrene, a type of plastic that's not biodegradable and can release potentially toxic substances.

Polystyrene, which is marked with the recycling number 6, contains a substance called styrene. According to the National Toxicology Program, styrene is "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen." Exposure to styrene can occur when handling packing peanuts, and especially if they are burned, when the chemical can be inhaled. It's important to point out that the levels of styrene in polystyrene packing peanuts are typically quite low, but it's worth being aware of if you're handling them regularly.

Furthermore, there's concern about the presence of flame retardant chemicals, which are added to prevent fires. These substances, which can be part of the brominated flame retardants family, could potentially leach out and contaminate the environment. They've been linked to various health issues, including endocrine disruption, which can lead to hormonal imbalances and other health problems.

In recent years, there's been a shift towards using biodegradable packing peanuts. These are often made from natural, plant-based materials like wheat and corn starch. They don't contain the potentially harmful chemicals found in their polystyrene counterparts and can be easily dissolved in water, reducing environmental impact and minimizing health risks. However, for those with specific allergies, even the biodegradable variety poses a potential risk, as they may contain allergens from the plant materials used.

If you work in logistics or a field where you are often in contact with these packing materials, it is wise to minimize direct skin contact, ensure adequate ventilation, and practice proper disposal to lower any health risks associated with exposure. For the casual unboxer, the risk of toxicity is quite low, but it still doesn't hurt to wash your hands after handling packing peanuts and, of course, opt for biodegradable options whenever possible.

  • Traditional Packing Peanuts: Often made from polystyrene and may release styrene, a potential carcinogen.
  • Flame Retardants: Chemicals added to prevent fires that could potentially leach out and may be linked to health issues like endocrine disruption.
  • Biodegradable Variants: Made from plant-based materials like wheat and corn starch, posing less risk of toxic exposure but may contain allergens.
  • Safe Handling: To minimize exposure risks, those who frequently handle packing peanuts should reduce skin contact, ensure proper ventilation, and follow correct disposal procedures.

To best manage your exposure to potential toxins in packing peanuts, awareness and proper handling are key. Choosing environmentally friendly and health-conscious alternatives when available can contribute significantly to personal and planetary well-being.

Choking Hazards and Indigestibility of Packing Peanuts

When we dive into the realm of packing peanuts, it's crucial to acknowledge the potential physical risks these protective materials may pose. Primarily crafted for the safety of products during shipping, packing peanuts have not been designed with ingestion or interaction with our bodily systems in mind.

Choking Hazards

Choking is a significant concern, especially for children and pets, who may be inclined to put small objects in their mouths. Considering their shape and size, packing peanuts can easily become lodged in the throat. The danger here lies in their ability to block the airway quickly, a scenario that can escalate to an emergency within moments.

The Statistics: According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, choking on small objects is a leading cause of death in children under the age of three. While packing peanuts are not often accounted for in these statistics, their potential to cause harm should not be underestimated.

Indigestibility and Internal Blockages

Packing peanuts are typically made from materials not suitable for digestion. Traditional foam peanuts, often made from polystyrene, are not biodegradable and can cause intestinal blockages if ingested. These blockages can be severe, leading to acute abdominal pain, vomiting, and the potential need for surgical intervention.

Even if the packing peanuts are of the more modern, biodegradable variety, made from materials like wheat or corn starch, they are still not designed for consumption. While they might not create as severe a blockage as polystyrene, these materials could still cause digestive upset and gastrointestinal issues. Remember, 'biodegradable' does not automatically translate to 'digestible.'

Preventative Measures:

  • Keep packing peanuts out of reach of children and pets to prevent accidental ingestion.
  • Dispose of these materials promptly and appropriately after unpacking items.
  • In the event of accidental ingestion, seek immediate medical attention, especially if choking or signs of distress are evident.

Knowledge is power, and in the case of understanding the risks associated with packing peanuts, it can be particularly protective. By staying informed and vigilant, we can prevent the unintentional harms these seemingly innocuous objects can cause.

Environmental Considerations of Packing Peanut Disposal

When we discuss whether an item is "bad for you," it's essential not only to consider its direct impact on human health but also the broader environmental implications. Disposing of packing peanuts, those little squishy filler materials that seem to spill out of every parcel, has significant environmental considerations. Understanding these can help us make more informed choices not just for our health, but for the planet's as well.

Traditional packing peanuts are made from expanded polystyrene (EPS), which is a type of plastic #6. They are incredibly light and effective at cushioning products, however, they come with a hefty environmental price tag. EPS is non-biodegradable, meaning it doesn't break down naturally in the environment. Moreover, EPS can take hundreds, if not thousands of years to decompose, and when it does finally start to break down, it can leach styrene (a possible human carcinogen according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer) into the environment. This leaching can affect water quality and have adverse effects on wildlife.

The difficulties with recycling EPS add another layer to the problem. While it is technically recyclable, the reality is that due to its bulky nature and low weight (which makes transportation inefficient), many recycling centers do not accept it. Thus, a vast majority of these packing peanuts end up in landfills, where they take up space and contribute to the growing problem of plastic pollution.

Additionally, packing peanuts can be a hazard to animals. They may mistake EPS peanuts for food, leading to ingestion that can cause harm or even prove fatal. This not only pertains to land animals but also marine life, as EPS particles often find their way to the oceans, contributing to the plastic soup swirling in our planet's waters.

Thankfully, there are eco-friendly alternatives that have been emerging on the market, such as those made from starch or other plant-based materials. These biodegradable packing peanuts dissolve in water and are non-toxic if ingested by wildlife. They can be a far better choice for the environment as they do not persist for eons, and their dissolution method minimizes the strain on recycling systems.

For consumers and businesses alike, being mindful of these environmental considerations when choosing packing materials is crucial. Here's a breakdown of disposal considerations for different types of packing peanuts:

  • EPS (Styrofoam) Packing Peanuts: Non-biodegradable, rarely recycled, long-term environmental impact, potential harm to wildlife.
  • Starch-based Biodegradable Packing Peanuts: Water-soluble, non-toxic, minimal environmental impact, safe around animals.
  • Recycled Material Packing Peanuts: A greener choice if they can be re-recycled, moderate environmental impact.

It's also worth noting that some areas might have special recycling programs or drop-off points for EPS. Engaging with community programs or local businesses that accept these materials for proper disposal or even reuse can be a small but vital step in mitigating environmental harm.

In summary, when it comes to the disposal of packing peanuts, considering their environmental impact is paramount. Whether you're packing a gift for a friend or shipping out products from a small business, opting for biodegradable alternatives can be a simple change with a lasting positive effect on our precious ecosystem. It's a small gesture of respect to Mother Nature that, collectively, could lead to substantial environmental improvements.

Allergic Reactions and Sensitivities Related to Packing Peanuts

Before diving into a sea of packing peanuts, let's unpack potential allergic reactions and sensitivities that might come with contact or exposure to this common packaging material. While packing peanuts are incredibly useful for protecting our treasures during shipping, they might also harbor some hidden concerns for certain individuals.

Firstly, it is crucial to differentiate between the two main types of packing peanuts: those made from styrofoam (polystyrene) and those crafted from more environmentally friendly, biodegradable materials such as corn starch or wheat. Each type possesses distinct properties that can influence their potential for causing allergic reactions.

Polystyrene Packing Peanuts: Traditional packing peanuts are primarily composed of polystyrene, a type of plastic. Although not commonly associated with allergic reactions, polystyrene can release styrene gas, which may cause irritation of the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract for those with chemical sensitivities. Studies suggest that occupational long-term exposure to styrene could lead to more severe health effects, but the occasional interaction with packing peanuts should provide minimal risk to most individuals.

  • Eye Irritation: Contact with styrene particles can lead to redness and discomfort.
  • Skin Reactions: For some, prolonged contact might result in dermatitis or other skin irritations.
  • Respiratory Issues: Inhaling styrene vapors can induce respiratory reactions in individuals with asthma or other sensitivities.

Biodegradable Packing Peanuts: A rise in environmental consciousness has led to the increased use of biodegradable packing peanuts made from natural, plant-based materials. While these are a more eco-friendly option, they might surprise you with a different set of concerns. Allergens inherent in the source materials (like corn or wheat) can occasionally cause issues for people with specific food allergies. Though contact with these biodegradable peanuts generally has to be significant to prompt a reaction, it's a factor worth considering when dealing with packing materials.

  • Corn Starch Peanuts: Could elicit an allergic response in those with a corn allergy.
  • Wheat-Based Peanuts: Pose a potential risk for individuals with wheat or gluten sensitivities, even though the risk of a reaction from handling is relatively low.

Other considerations include the presence of dust or additional chemical additives used in the manufacturing processes of both types of peanuts. Individuals particularly sensitive to dust might experience sneezing or discomfort when handling packing peanuts.

In conclusion, while packing peanuts are not typically associated with severe allergic reactions for most people, certain groups should handle them with care. If you have pre-existing sensitivities or allergies related to chemicals or the base materials used in biodegradable peanuts, it's wise to take precautionary measures. Wear gloves when handling packing peanuts and ensure proper ventilation to minimize inhalation of any irritating particles or gasses.

Remembering these basic precautions can make receiving packages a purely joyous occasion, without the hidden sneezes and itches. And, as always, if you're unsure about your reactions or experience significant discomfort, consult with a healthcare provider for personalized advice.

Biodegradable Packing Peanuts: Are They a Safer Option?

When you're dealing with packing peanuts, it's not just about the clutter they can bring to your home or office—it's also about what they're made of and the impact they could have on your health and the environment. Traditional packing peanuts, typically made from polystyrene, a type of plastic, raise concerns both environmentally and health-wise. However, in the wave of eco-friendly products, biodegradable packing peanuts have surfaced as a potentially safer option. Let's unpack the details.

Biodegradable packing peanuts are usually made from natural, plant-based materials such as wheat and corn starch. Unlike their polystyrene counterparts, they dissolve in water—which means a more manageable cleanup and a lower environmental impact, as they don't languish in landfills. But what does this mean for your health?

Firstly, the materials used in biodegradable peanuts are generally non-toxic. In the event of accidental ingestion by young children or pets, they are less likely to cause harm than polystyrene peanuts. Of course, it's essential to act responsibly and keep all types of packing materials out of the reach of children and pets to avoid potential choking hazards.

Additionally, allergies can be a concern for some individuals. Being made of natural substances, these biodegradable options could cause allergic reactions. For those with sensitivities to wheat or corn, direct contact should be avoided to prevent any allergic responses.

Furthermore, the manufacturing process for biodegradable peanuts is often considered environmentally friendlier. Fewer toxic substances are released into the atmosphere, contributing to better air quality and overall health. It's a classic example of how choosing eco-friendly products can have a ripple effect on personal and planetary health.

At the same time, occupational exposure during manufacturing should not be ignored. Workers in facilities that produce plant-based packing materials could be exposed to dust or other airborne particles that could pose respiratory issues. Proper safety measures and ventilation systems are necessary to safeguard the health of these workers.

In summary, biodegradable packing peanuts present a safer option in several respects:

  • Non-toxicity leads to less risk in cases of accidental ingestion.
  • Dissolvable in water, facilitating easy and safe disposal.
  • Manufacturing processes are generally kinder to the environment, reducing indirect health risks associated with pollution.
  • Potential allergy considerations for those with sensitivities to the materials used.

While no packing material can be deemed entirely risk-free, biodegradable versions are a step in the right direction, promoting a healthier home and environment. However, as with any product, consumers must stay informed and mindful of personal allergies and environmental considerations to make the best choice for their health and the planet.

Healthier Alternatives to Traditional Packing Materials

When it comes to packing materials, traditional options like polystyrene packing peanuts have raised environmental and health concerns. Luckily, opting for healthier alternatives not only aligns better with eco-friendly practices but also minimizes potential health risks associated with handling or accidental ingestion of synthetic packing materials. Let's explore some of the healthier and sustainable alternatives:

1. Biodegradable Packing Peanuts: Unlike their polystyrene counterparts, biodegradable peanuts are made from natural, non-toxic materials such as cornstarch or wheat. They dissolve in water, leaving no toxic waste, and are safe around children and pets. Plus, they do an equally good job of protecting your items during shipping.

2. Recycled Paper or Cardboard: Shredded paper and corrugated cardboard can be excellent cushioning materials and are easily recyclable. Newspapers, magazines, and cardboard boxes often lying around the house can be repurposed, reducing waste and eliminating the need for synthetic packing materials.

3. Air Pillows Made of Recycled Materials: Some companies make air pillows from fully recycled materials, which are much lighter than traditional packing peanuts, reducing shipping weight and, consequently, greenhouse gas emissions. They are reusable and provide excellent protection for fragile items.

4. Inflatable Packaging: Individual sections of inflatable packaging can be filled with air as needed, offering customizable cushioning that is both reusable and recyclable. Made from a blend of recycled materials, these are a healthier alternative for the environment and for individuals concerned about synthetic waste.

5. Organic Materials: For those who prefer natural options, materials such as cotton, wool, bamboo, or even mushroom packaging can serve as eco-friendly packing solutions. They're biodegradable, compostable, and pose less of a health risk if accidentally consumed by children or pets. However, they might not be as readily available and can be more expensive.

6. Rubber Bands and Reusable Ties: Simple yet effective, rubber bands and reusable ties can secure bundled items without the need for harmful adhesives or plastic wraps. Made from natural rubber or recyclable materials, they offer a health-conscious choice for securing items in place.

It’s important to remember that switching to healthier packing alternatives is not only a step towards ensuring your own safety and the safety of those around you but also contributes positively to the larger picture of environmental sustainability. By choosing these alternatives, you can be part of the solution in reducing the amount of non-biodegradable waste and minimizing your carbon footprint—a win for both personal health and the health of our planet. Remember, adopting a healthier lifestyle also means considering the impact of your choices on the broader environment; after all, we're all in this together.

Frequently asked questions

If you have a corn allergy, you should handle biodegradable packing peanuts with care, as they may contain cornstarch. It's advisable to wear gloves during handling to avoid direct contact, and always wash your hands thoroughly after touching them. Always consult with an allergist if you have a known, severe allergy.

Traditional packing peanuts made from polystyrene are difficult to recycle and do not biodegrade readily, which poses environmental challenges. To minimize impact, try reusing them for your own shipping needs or see if local shipping stores will accept them for reuse. Additionally, check for special recycling programs in your community that may accept polystyrene products.

Eco-friendly alternatives to traditional packing peanuts include recycled paper, corrugated cardboard, air pillows made from recycled materials, organic packing materials like cotton or bamboo, and inflatable packaging. These options are better for the environment and minimize health risks associated with synthetic packing materials.

While biodegradable packing peanuts are non-toxic and safer than polystyrene ones, ingestion can still cause digestive issues for pets. If you suspect your pet has eaten a substantial amount, monitor for signs of distress, and consult your veterinarian. Encourage your pet to drink water to help dissolve the material and pass it more easily.

Ask a question about Packing Peanuts and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • skin irritation
  • eye irritation
  • respiratory issues
  • choking hazard
  • intestinal blockage
  • digestive upset
  • allergic reactions

Possible long-term side effects

  • potential carcinogenic effects
  • hormonal imbalances
  • endocrine disruption
  • chronic respiratory problems

Ingredients to be aware of

  • styrene
  • brominated flame retardants
  • allergens in plant-based materials


  • protection during shipping
  • biodegradable options available
  • safer for children and pets

Healthier alternatives

  • recycled paper or cardboard
  • air pillows made of recycled materials
  • inflatable packaging
  • organic materials like cotton, wool, bamboo
  • rubber bands and reusable ties

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Desmond Richard
Published on: 11-29-2023

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Desmond Richard
Published on: 11-29-2023

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