Teacup Chemistry

Today as I was sipping tea, I noticed that chunks of the styrofoam cup were missing. I knew that the cup was fine when I started, so I pondered what could have caused the change. I had added a few pieces of orange peel to the tea for flavoring, and I wondered if the oil from the peel could have had this effect.

I put some orange oil into a new styrofoam cup and swished it around, but there was no noticible effect. Boiling water on its own also had no effect. But the two together began fizzing dramatically and the cup began to crumple. I poured out the solution and found that much of the inside of the cup had been dissolved, leaving just a thin layer that likely would have been dissolved as well if I left the solution in place. This means that I had been drinking dissolved styrofoam in my tea! Eeek!

However, my chemist friend Matt tells me that a styrofoam cup is mostly air, and that after the dissolving, there was a very tiny amount of styrene in solution and that it is not considered a health concern.

Nevertheless, I’ll stick to a ceramic mug from now on.