Resources » Styrene (USA)

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The escape of gaseous styrene was observed from a safety valve on a stationary railway tank vehicle on the 28th August 2005 at approx. 5pm, near Cincinnati, Ohio at the regional airport Lunken. According to media reports, the tank vehicle contained approx. 24'000 gallons, that is about 90'000 liters of styrene.  The tank vehicle belonged to a company listed on the stock exchange with an ISO 9000 certification and a safety award "OSHA star site".

Evacuation Order

The population was evacuated within a radius of 0.5 miles around the tank vehicle and a curfew with a radius of 1 mile was imposed. The regional airport Lunken was temporarily closed.

Two policemen were taken to hospital after they had inhaled the gas, but were released again. No further persons were reported to have been injured as a result of the accident.

USGS satellite photo. Position of the source (red circle) with evacuation zone

Possible Reason for the Increase in Pressure

Because the opening of a safety valve requires an increase in internal pressure, we can assume that an exothermic (heat generating) reaction had taken place inside the tank. In the case of styrene, a well known reaction is the polymerization of styrene to polystyrene.

A stabiliser like 4-tertiary-butyl-catechol (TBC), which prevents polymerization, is usually added to styrene for transport and storage. In order for TBC to be effective, it is necessary for a certain concentration of oxygen to be dissolved in the styrene solution in addition to TBC. Should no stabiliser be present or has it been used up, styrene can polymerize with oxygen to form a styrene-oxygen copolymer, benzaldehyde or formaldehyde.

Between 10-15 ppm TBC is added to styrene. Under ideal conditions, 10-15 ppm TBC stabilises styrene for approximately 3 months. The TBC can be used up faster according to oxygen concentration, temperature, humidity, rust, or other impurities in the tank. In addition, a minimal oxygen concentration of 10 ppm. and preferentially of 15-20 ppm. is necessary.

The higher the temperature, the faster the TBC concentration falls. The decrease in the TBC concentration from 15 ppm to 10 ppm. at the corresponding temperature over a period of days has been specified in the following table (stored in air Reference):

According to media reports, the tank wagon had been stationary at the site of the accident for 9 months.  Due to this lengthy stationary period, polymerisation is most likely to account for the rise in pressure.

Chemical hazard symbols

The first hazard symbol to the left is the ‘NFPA hazard diamond’ (according to NFPA 704, cf. also to University of Oregon):  

  • Health hazard = 2 (blue square): Hazardous!  Only to be entered in full protective clothing and breathing apparatus for duration of exposure in the hazard area. 
  • Fire hazard = 3 (red square) : Danger of ignition at normal temperatures 
  • Reactivity = 2 (yellow square):  Capable of violent chemical reaction. Increased safety measures. Fire fighting method only to be undertaken from a safe distance.

The illustration in the middle displays the UN number for identifying hazards:

  • The Hazard Identification No. 39 stands for 3 = flammable liquid substance, 9= danger of violent reaction resulting from auto-decomposition or polymerisation. 
  • The UN-No. 2055 is equivalent to styrene.

The illustration on the right shows that styrene belongs to UN Hazard Class 3:

  • Ignitable liquid substances

Physical Properties

Styrene (also referred to as vinyl benzene, phenyl ethylene) is a colourless, benzene-like smelling, strongly refractive, ignitable liquid. 

  • Styrene has a boiling point of 145 degrees Celsius and exists as a liquid under standard conditions. The vapour pressure is small at  5 hPa = 5 mbar at standard conditions. 
  • The flash point is at 31 degrees Celsius and a mixture with air is ignitable within 1 to 9 Vol %. 
  • Styrene vapour with a vapour density ratio of 3.6 is heavier than air. Following a release, there is the danger of the vapour sinking to the ground and accumulating within the canalisation or e.g. within underground car parks and cellars and forming an ignitable mixture there. 
  • Styrene has an aqueous solubility of 0.24 g per 1 kg water and therefore has a low solubility in water. Due to the density of styrene at 910 kg/m3  being smaller than that of water, fluid styrene forms an overlying phase on a body of water. 
  • Forms explosive, oxidising peroxide compounds.

Toxic Properties

Styrene vapour irritates the eyes and skin. Blistering is possible after more prolonged exposure.

Styrene is assessed as being less toxic e.g. thsn acetic acid (the PAC-2 value of styrene is 130 ppm, the PAC-2 value of acetic acid is 35 ppm).  However, the EPA categorises styrene as being possibly carcinogenic for humans (see  EPA Air Toxics Website Styrene).

Hazard Assessment using MET

To assess hazards, we assume: 


  • The tank bursts, releasing the entire mass of styrene without a fire breaking out.

We will assume the following weather data:  

Wind velocity: 3 m/s, temperature: 25°C, relative air humidity:  70%, sky less than 50% overcast, daytime, roughness of terrain: village.  

Using standard settings, we obtain the following using MET:

Toxic hazard outdoors: 720 m and within the protective shelter of a building: 320 m. 

Explosion hazard: (1% chance of damage to the eardrum): 1020 m.

When a scenario like this occurs, prior to its release, a certain amount of styrene will be converted into a polymer. This is regarded as being far less dangerous. This fraction of converted styrene can be neglected. However, the fraction of styrene that will be converted prior to release cannot be easily predicted and it is therefore not taken into account. 


Due to the critical toxic distance of 720 m and the danger of a gas cloud explosion the critical distance value outdoors should be fixed at 1 km.

Hazard potential within buildings

The hazard within buildings is 320 m.  The critical distance value within buildings should be fixed at 320 m. 

Measures taken in reality

The actual evacuation zone set up by emergency response personnel for this accident comprised 0.5 miles (approx. 800 meters).  A curfew was set up within a 1-mile radius (approx. 1.6 km).

Other accidents involving styrene

We recently reported on a release of styrene in France (refer to it here).


We would like to thank the news broadcasting station WCPO-TV ( for providing us with graphic material.


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