Bean bags and bean bag chairs have been medically proven to be ergonomically superior to most other types of furniture. The average person can avoid or relieve several health problems by sitting or lying on bean bag furniture, and it is prescribed by doctors for those suffering from certain conditions, including autism. A few people and organizations claim that bean bag filling may be toxic or carcinogenic to people, but according to several authorities, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), bean bag filling is perfectly safe under normal, consumer use.
What Is Bean Bag Filling?
The beads used to fill most bean bags are made of expanded polystyrene foam (EPS), which is often referred to by the brand name Styrofoam. Polystyrene can be produced in two forms, rigid and foamed, and it is commonly used to make containers, protective packaging and packing material.
Virgin polystyrene beads are made specifically as filler for bean bags, but some people use inferior recycled beads that once served another purpose. EPS beads are lightweight and rigid to provide support but remain pliable enough to create a cushioning effect.
EPS is a compound composed of several individual ingredients. According to Dyplast Products, a manufacturer of EPS, the chemical name is ethenylbenzene homopolymer. In addition to the polystyrene foam, EPS contains pentane isomers and styrene.
Pentane isomers in the beads are in the form of n-pentane, isopentane and cyclopentane, all of which are flammable blowing agents that are emitted as gases. Eighty-five percent of pentane isomers are released within the first 48 hours after EPS is manufactured, and the remaining 15 percent is usually emitted before it is shipped to distributors. It is extremely rare for these isomers to be present in bean bag filler by the time it is delivered to end users.
Styrene, in the form of residual vinyl benzene, makes up less than 0.2 percent of finished EPS products. However, it is the subject of much of the debate as to whether polystyrene beads are carcinogenic or hazardous to human health. The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Association (OSHA) states that workers may be exposed to substances with styrene at levels of up to 600 parts per million (ppm) for periods of 5 minutes or less and 100 ppm for longer times. However, the American Conference of Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) reports that styrene is safe at levels of up to 20 ppm.
EPS Safety Hazards
Most of the safety hazards regarding EPS apply only to workers who manufacture the material and people who are exposed to freshly produced EPS on a daily basis. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Hazardous Material Identification System (HMIS) give EPS a rating of one on a scale of zero to four. With an HMIS rating of one, a substance may cause irritation or minor reversible injury, but for EPS, this may occur through only a few specific routes.
If the dust from polystyrene beads is inhaled, it may cause temporary irritation and coughing. However, overexposure to high concentrations of pentane isomers, which are not present when the beads reach consumers, may cause headache, dizziness and nausea. If EPS is roughly cut, it may cause abrasions, but virgin bean bag beads are smooth and round. If the beads are eaten, they may cause gastrointestinal irritation, and if they get in your eyes, they could cause, redness, tearing and blurry vision.
Styrene and Cancer
The question of whether EPS beads are carcinogenic stems from the fact that small amounts of styrene may be present in the beads. However, it is very rare for any amount of styrene to be present in the filler by the time it reaches consumers.
Even if infinitesimally small levels of styrene are present in the beads, the ACGIH states that it is not classified as a human carcinogen, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) states that it is only a possible carcinogen. The CDC says styrene may only enter the body when inhaled, ingested or touched as a liquid, and workers must be exposed to 1,000 times the levels that are typically found in the environment before minor adverse effects may occur.
The Bottom Line
While some studies show that styrene may be a possible carcinogen, it is almost never present in bean bag refill by the time it is purchased by consumers. As long as all of the standard safety precautions are taken and the beads remain in the bean bags, the only real risk is when small children accidentally ingest or inhale them, and all bean bags today are equipped with safety features to prevent this from occurring.