Are Packing Peanuts Toxic?
Ever since they were introduced in 1965, packaging peanuts have become a popular and effective way to cushion fragile or loose objects for shipping. But many people hesitate to use them because of concerns about their safety for humans, animals and the environment. Is this concern justified? We’ve examined the potential dangers of packing peanuts and whether they are as bad as some claim.
Packing Peanut Types
What’s most important to remember is that there are two types of packing peanuts. Traditional foam peanuts are made using either virgin or recycled polystyrene plastic – better known by its trade name of Styrofoam. These are sometimes referred to as “immortal peanuts” because they never degrade or break down. The main advantages of this are that they can easily be reused or recycled, are cheap to produce and are lightweight. They also provide great insulation for merchandise.
So are they dangerous? Because they are made from a petroleum-based material, many people assume they must be toxic for humans and animals. In actuality, the material itself is not toxic. However, since they do not degrade, large chunks can cause intestinal blockage, choking, diarrhea and other serious health problems.
In response to these dangers, biodegradable packing peanuts were developed in the early 1990s. These loose-fill peanuts are manufactured using grains, cornstarch and other crop-based sources. This makes them safe for people and pets to consume, though it is still not recommended. They also will safely decompose, making them more environmentally friendly. Another positive about them is that they don’t hold a static charge, so they are safer for shipping electronics and other sensitive items. The disadvantages are that they are heavier, less sturdy and more expensive than foam.
How to Tell if Your Packing Peanuts are Biodegradable
So which ones are in the cardboard shipping box that just arrived? There’s an easy test to determine what you’re dealing with: simply drop the packing peanut into a cup or bowl of water. A starch-based packaging peanut will begin softening and dissolving almost immediately upon contact. If this happens, your packing peanuts are biodegradable and thus non-toxic. If the water has no effect on the peanut, then it is made of Styrofoam.
What to Do if Packing Peanuts are Consumed
If you discover that a child or pet has made a snack out of immortal plastic peanuts, you should call a doctor, vet or the nearest poison control center immediately. The next course of action depends on the size of the pieces that were consumed and how long it has been. Flakes and small chunks will typically pass through the system on their own without major ill effects. For whole peanuts, induced vomiting, forced pooping or even surgery may be needed to remove them.
In the case of biodegradable peanuts, the worst thing that will usually happen is an upset stomach. However, you should still monitor whoever consumed the peanut in case they do start to show signs of intestinal blockage such as serious stomach pain or a loss of appetite. Call a doctor or vet if they do exhibit any of these symptoms.