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Feb 06, 2012, 09:29 PM
Total Noob
bkboggy's Avatar

Foam Fumes (Toxic?)

So, this is something that I began looking into after completing my foam cutter:

OutcastZeroOne has mentioned:

make sure you have good ventalation so you stick around long enough to tell us about all your projects :P

So I went into a little bit of a research mode:

I'll just post what I had there:
Heh, yeah. I keep the garage door opened when I use it. I also purchased a while back.

It says it can protect up to 95% of organic vapors... From my research, it's pretty much anything that contains carbon. So in theory is can protect against foam's chemical fumes. An external oxygen supply one would probably be better... but I'm sure those are very expensive. I'll do a little bit of research. Unless someone knows more on this subject matter?



List of Organic Vapors:

Another interesting thing I've read:


Because it is an aromatic hydrocarbon, it burns with an orange-yellow flame, giving off soot, as is characteristic of materials containing aromatic rings. Complete oxidation of polystyrene produces carbon dioxide and water vapor. Because of its chemical inertness, polystyrene is used to fabricate containers for chemicals, solvents, and foods. Polystyrene contains traces of styrene monomer. When food is heated in polystyrene container the monomer is extracted and enter the digestive system of the consumer.[citation needed] Styrene is toxic and a known carcinogen.[citation needed] This causes additional concerns when used for food or beverage packaging. Polystyrene is soluble in most of the organic solvents known and is not appropriate for such uses. Foamed polystyrene is used for packaging purposes of chemicals, but it does not come into contact with the actual solvents.

Never knew that Polystyrene was harmless, the vapor is just water and carbon dioxide (with soot, of course).

We deal with all kinds of different foams, however. And the ones we usually play around with are not safe for food packaging; therefore, telling me that the chemicals they have are incredibly dangerous. I need to research more and see what kind of vapors the foams we work with produce.

Extruded closed-cell polystyrene foam is sold under the trademark Styrofoam by Dow Chemical. This term is often used informally for other foamed polystyrene products.
But I wonder if the versions they deal with are not so harmless. I always hear how foam produces toxic chemicals... and I'm sure they do... does anyone know enough about this stuff?


From Hot Wire Foam Factory website:

Q: Are the fumes that are given off when cutting polystyrene foams (EPS or XPS foams) with hot wire tools dangerous?

A: Ventilation is always strongly suggested, but the smoke that you may encounter while cutting EPS foam is primarily CO2 and water vapor, which are far less harmful than other common art products like aerosols and paint thinners. The toxic values are far less than wood-smoke, which contains tars, resins, creosote, and acetic acid. The dust from cutting with saws and sanding EPS foam is more harmful than the fumes encountered while cutting foam with a hot wire tool. Always wear a good quality dust mask when saw cutting or sanding polystyrene foams.

To get the polystyrene foams to actually combust and burn you have to have an extremely hot fire, much hotter than our tools get, burning directly on the foam to begin with. Always check with the manufacturer of the foam you are using to make sure that there are no health or safety hazards when cutting their foam with hot wire tools. Keep in mind when you read the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for the foam you look up that they often are referring to possible safety hazards when manufacturing foam, not cutting it.

You can call our toll free number at 1-866-735-9255 and we can give you the tech-support number for DOW which manufactures Styrofoam. They told us that the fumes from cutting their foam with a hot wire are not toxic, but cutting should still be done in a well-ventilated area. (On the other hand we have had many personal testimonials claiming that they have become addicted to foam cutting. Could it be the fumes or is foam sculpting is way too much fun?)
So.... so far in my research it appears that the only two things Polystyrene (which is the base for ... all the foams we use) produces as far as fumes go are water and CO2.... not extremely harmful. The only thing I can see coming from enough of it is the soot entering lungs (which the mask will prevent) and possible suffocation if there is not enough air flow in the area.

Other than that... I would assume color additives in the foam (pink, blue, green, etc.) would produce harmful chemicals... it's like burning paint? But the foam itself does not appear to be as harmful as everyone makes it out to be. Unless someone has some hard data?


I would think there's something toxic and harmful about burning plastics and foam, especially since they're petroleum-based products, but I would like to know exactly what we're dealing with when we choose to introduce burnt foam fumes into our air.

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Feb 06, 2012, 09:36 PM
Total Noob
bkboggy's Avatar
So, I went to the source of Polystyrene -----> Styrene. How harmful is Styrene?


Health effects

Styrene is regarded as a "hazardous chemical", especially in case of eye contact, but also in case of skin contact, of ingestion and of inhalation, according to several sources.[10][11][12][1] The US EPA has described styrene to be "a suspected toxin to the gastrointestinal tract, kidney, and respiratory system, among others."[13][14] On 10 June 2011, the US National Toxicology Program has described styrene as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen".[2][3] However, a STATS author describes [15] a review that was done on scientific literature and concluded that "The available epidemiologic evidence does not support a causal relationship between styrene exposure and any type of human cancer."[16]. Despite this claim, scientific research has established a causual link between occupational exposure to styrene and cancer. [17] Exposure to styrene and chronic health effects: moratlity and incidence of solid cancers in the Danish reinforced plastics industry.

The U.S. EPA does not have a cancer classification for styrene,[18] but currently is evaluating styrene's cancer-causing potential through its Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program.[19] The U.S. National Toxicology Program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also currently is evaluating styrene's potential toxicity[20] To date, no regulatory body anywhere in the world has classified styrene as a known human carcinogen, although several refer to it in various contexts as a possible or potential human carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer considers styrene to be "possibly carcinogenic to humans.".[21] Chronic exposure to styrene leads to tiredness/lethargy, memory deficits, headaches and vertigo.[22]

According to the Styrene Information and Research Center (an organization representing nearly all of the "North American styrene industry"),[23] polystyrene plastic neither contains, nor breaks down into bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in plastic compounds that leads to developmental and reproductive problems in both adults and children.[24]
So, even those agencies don't know enough about Health Hazards of Styrene....


Has some health information regarding cutting foam. However, it does not have hard data towards it's toxicity. It says it can cause doziness in small children, etc... but that could be due to CO2 replacing oxygen in the air.

Health Effects
Immediate Health Effects

If SWALLOWED, styrene is Not Available
If ABSORBED THROUGH SKIN, styrene is Not Available
If INHALED (SNIFFED OR BREATHED IN), styrene is Not Available

Longterm or Delayed Health Effects

Neurotoxin = Can harm brain and central nervous system
Suspected Endocrine Disruptor = May interfere with, mimic or block hormones


If inhaled at high concentrations, can cause nervous system effects such as depression, concentration problems, muscle weakness, fatigue, and nausea. Chronic occupational exposures have caused eye problems.
Eye, nose, and throat irritation if inhaled.
Chromosomal damage.
In test animals, has caused damage to the liver, kidneys, brain, and lungs when ingested.

So they actually used lab animals to check for health hazards... but I'm sure it's in very large quantities. It appears Styrene comes from cigarette smoke as well.

This is from

Occupational Health Guidelines for Styrene (PDF)

PDF file from provides some standards for protecting yourself on Page 5.

Too much stuff to quote, but it's a good read on their outlook on Styrene. Has a lot of data and studies.

Whatever those websites say, it appears that things are still being researched and no hard conclusions have been formed. It is important to protect yourself against those POSSIBLE health hazards. It seems that everything that comes from petroleum ends up being cancerous or toxic. Even though there's not enough data to prove that Styrene is in fact harmful, I would probably go ahead and protect yourself as much as possible.

Makes me wonder why Hot Wire Foam Factory website would claim that those fumes are not all that toxic... along with Wiki page for Polystyrene. And my only guess would be this: a regular hobbyist does not cut production amount of foam, thus exposing himself/herself to less fumes. Most of the fumes are CO2 and water; however, a small part of the fumes is styrene, along with a few other harmful chemicals, but it's not enough to cause a huge concern if exposures are limited (I would still protect myself as much as possible).

My personal conclusion is this: Those fumes do indeed inhibit harmful chemicals. Most of the fumes are CO2 and water, but a small portion are toxins. Most of those studies are geared towards someone who's exposed to that stuff every day, possible due to their work environment (foam-production plant). If they're exposed to that stuff every day for 30 years without any protection equipment, there's a pretty good chance they're not going to milk their retirement. As far as I'm concerned... we get exposed to the same chemicals from car exhaust fumes every day. I wouldn't want to add anything on top of that, so I'll use my mask and maybe get a workshop air filtration system. But in small amounts, it's not something that's going to kill you.... it'll take a moderate amount over a lengthy period. Just as OutcastZeroOne and many others have mentioned, a good ventilation will do most of the work. You can go one step ahead and get a respirator (like mine from Harbor Freight ($16): or Amazon ($25-30): & You can even get air purification system for a workshop environment: Amazon ($170)

Heck, you can even go one step further and get a HEPA-certified Chemical Air Purifier such as IQAir or Austin Air (I got Austin Air... it works, seriously): Amazon Link

What kind of air purifiers do you guys use, if any? I know that Jet air purifier is very popular, but it doesn't collect chemical fumes... Austin Air and IQAir do that pretty well, but are pricier (especially IQAir). Also, what kind respirators do you use, if any? Do you use organic vapor filter or some kind of other carbon filter?

Please, share your knowledge.

Last edited by bkboggy; Feb 06, 2012 at 10:32 PM.
Feb 07, 2012, 07:09 AM
Build straight - Fly twisty
Whiskers's Avatar
I really believe that no burning of foam takes place when it is cut by a hot wire.
At the correct temperature the foam melts, and the cell walls collapse, so the foam structure is destroyed by the wire and converted to a thin skin on the cut surfaces, "Angel Hair", and to residue on the wire itself.
Commercial cutters burn off this residue by upping the temperature for the cleaning cycle. It is worth noting that to do this 'burn off' the wire is way above a heat that would produce a good cut.
A quick wipe of the hot wire with a cotton cloth does the job in 'our' application.
Cutting EPS I've never noticed any fumes and only minuscule amounts of 'smoke,'
Feb 07, 2012, 07:51 AM
Registered User
Sabrejock's Avatar
Toxic or not, the fumes stink. So, I suspend my central vac hose over the cutting process and evacuate the fumes to outside so my neighbours can enjoy them Tex.
Feb 07, 2012, 08:17 AM
Registered User
I have never looked into this too much, but in the fire service, we are taught that all foams produce hydrogen cyanide in various amounts(some types of foam are worse than others), and plastics are a major producer of this deadly gas too. At what levels they are produced in comparison to volume burned is also unclear.

I do know that whenever I've been exposed to plastic and foam combustion fumes while on a fire scene and I've been stupid enough to not wear my SCBA, I get sick. I am not affected by the smoke from just burning wood other than oxygen displacement.

So moral if the story? Better safe than sorry! Make your workspace well ventilated and you should be fine as long as you don't concentrate and huff the fumes.
Feb 07, 2012, 02:28 PM
Total Noob
bkboggy's Avatar
Originally Posted by Sabrejock View Post
Toxic or not, the fumes stink. So, I suspend my central vac hose over the cutting process and evacuate the fumes to outside so my neighbours can enjoy them Tex.


Whiskers does have a point though. I've tested what he has described and the smoke would only appear when my wire is glowing red. There is no black soot appearing during normal cutting and no smoke. However, that's not to say that fumes are not produced. I've been reading more on the sites I've cited above and some of them talk about how it takes a lot to burn Polystyrene and it's designed to extinguish itself pretty quickly.

Toxic or not, just as gmwahl has mentioned --- better safe than sorry. I've been wearing my carbon vapor respirator and keeping the garage door open.
Feb 07, 2012, 02:45 PM
Build straight - Fly twisty
Whiskers's Avatar
Yes, and red hot is way too hot for a good cut.
Feb 07, 2012, 02:56 PM
"Fly, yes... Land, No"
OutcastZeroOne's Avatar
when I first built and used my hotwire a long time ago, I did it in a large room but didnt have ventalation. Project took way longer then I had planned. after a few hours of having that thing on (i was still learning the machine and made a lot of "test parts") my eyes where starting to burn a bit. There is something there when the foam is cut with the hot wire.

Now my current set up has a filtration system to collect all those nasty fumes and filter them from the air. Also with my table having a light on it, I can see that there is some smoke made, even at low settings. its just very hard to see unless lit up. My table has 8 LEDs around the wire to light up my work area.
Feb 07, 2012, 03:12 PM
Total Noob
bkboggy's Avatar
Yeah, some of the sites do mention throat and eye irritation as one of the side effects. What kind of filtration system do you use?
Feb 07, 2012, 03:46 PM
"Fly, yes... Land, No"
OutcastZeroOne's Avatar
directly above the wire I have some ducting that leads to my filter system. Ive got a few different types of filters including an activated carbon filter.

they sell smaller units for soldering stations like these guys:
Feb 07, 2012, 04:19 PM
Total Noob
bkboggy's Avatar
That's pretty sweet and inexpensive, thanks!
Feb 07, 2012, 04:25 PM
"Fly, yes... Land, No"
OutcastZeroOne's Avatar
they have lots of goodies there. big selection of power suplies and tools. they are based out of florida so shipping can take a while for us CA guys.
Sep 22, 2014, 05:44 PM
Registered User

Fumes from Hot wire foam cutting

Not sure if this is to old of a post to reply to. I have a question and this site has actual gave me the most information regarding this matter.
My office is directly in front of a warehouse that cuts foam. This metal building with offices in front of the ware house. The walls are thin I can hear every conversation daily and the SMELL is horrible. I have been in this location for 3 months. I have gone to the Dr 4x and I am now on inhalers and nasal spray I have a cough like a smoker. I have asked several times if the correct ventilation is in there warehouse I just keep being told it is not harmful. Last week my throat was on fire and the smell was much stringer radiating into the front offices with my employees who than complained. I had to send them home.
The company cuts foam for houses, pop outs and decorative pieces. The use a big machine .
My question is 1 is this stuff dangerous basically I am sitting in a fume box breathing it 8 hours a day.
2. Is there some kind of regulation EPA or NIOSH guidelines they should be following.
Any help is appreciated I especially don't want my employees to get sick.
Sep 22, 2014, 07:30 PM
springer's Avatar
Raccoon: I'm sure that the EPA would be glad to do a tour of the place. Unfortunately it sounds like you are in the environment that the studies quoted above are designed to evaluate (as compared to one of us using a hot wire cutter occasionally at home. It is certainly possible that you are allergic to some of the components of the outgassing of a heavy cutting operation, and very possible that they don't have proper ventilation in the plant.

This following comment applys to both the original thread issue and to yours: My assessment of the toxicity of Polystyrene foam is that the most toxic component of heating it is the outgassing of the stryene monomer (the basic building block that polystyrene polymers are made of) it's more active than a completed long chain polymer, therefore more able to combine with organics like us. typical foam that we use for foamies is as fully polymerized as possible, so very little monomer is available and when we heat it below the combustion temp only a very small bit is released. The big problem generally is the aromatics and smoke, it stinks and has some small particulates - annoying but not lethal. So for our usage, enough ventilation to remove the stink if fine. For your situation, I think you might see if someone could check it out.
Sep 23, 2014, 12:57 PM
Registered User
Complete oxidation results in CO2, water vapor and soot, but I don't think you'll get complete oxidation using a hot wire cutter and there is going to be a lot of vapors of who knows what released. I would set up a fume extractor, I've used a piece of flexible dryer duct attached to a small fan set outside when I was working with something that made nasty fumes.

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