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Determinants of environmental styrene exposure in Gulf coast residents



In a previous study of exposure to oil-related chemicals in Gulf coast residents, we measured blood levels of volatile organic compounds. Levels of styrene were substantially elevated compared to a nationally representative sample. We sought to identify factors contributing to these levels, given the opportunities for styrene exposure in this community.


We measured blood styrene levels in 667 Gulf coast residents and compared participants’ levels of blood styrene to a nationally representative sample. We assessed personal and environmental predictors of blood styrene levels using linear regression and predicted the risk of elevated blood styrene (defined as above the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 95th percentile) using modified Poisson regression. We assessed exposure to styrene using questionnaire data on recent exposure opportunities and leveraged existing databases to assign ambient styrene exposure based on geocoded residential location.


These Gulf coast residents were 4–6 times as likely as the nationally representative sample to have elevated blood styrene levels. The change in styrene (log ng/mL) was 0.42 (95% CI: 0.34, 0.51) for smoking, 0.34 (0.09, 0.59) for time spent in vehicles and 1.10 (0.31, 1.89) for boats, and −0.41 (−0.73, −0.10) for fall/winter blood draws. Residential proximity to industrial styrene emissions did not predict blood styrene levels. Ambient styrene predicted elevated blood styrene in subgroups.


Personal predictors of increasing blood styrene levels included smoking, vehicle emissions, and housing characteristics. There was a suggestive association between ambient and blood styrene. Our measures of increased regional exposure opportunity do not fully explain the observed elevated blood styrene levels in this population.

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We thank Mark Bodkin for data management on this project. We also thank Cindy Hines for her expertise on occupational exposure, and David Chambers for blood VOC measurement.


This work was funded by the NIH Common Fund and the Intramural Program of the NIH, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (Z01 ES 102945).

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Correspondence to Lawrence S. Engel.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary information

Appendix I Evaluation of National Air Toxics Assessment by state

Appendix I Evaluation of National Air Toxics Assessment by state

Owing to concerns about inter-state variability in NATA data quality and reporting, we examined agreement between NATA estimates and monitored concentrations in corresponding census tracts by state (Table A1). Treating the annual average of observed values at monitors as the true estimate of exposure at that location, NATA performance is best in Louisiana and Texas, followed by Mississippi and Florida. Alabama emerged as potentially problematic based on the large disparity with monitored data. Estimated concentrations in Alabama are furthest from monitored concentrations, with a marked difference from the other Gulf states. This analysis is very limited by the sparsity of monitoring coverage, but given the general lack of data availability, we felt that any additional information contributed to our evaluation.

Table A1 Comparing NATA 2011 estimated annual concentrations and AMA observed annual concentrations by Gulf state

Based on the patterns observed in Table A1, we examined effects of differential reporting to NATA by state on associations between ambient and blood styrene levels. Given insufficient sample sizes in each individual state to support state-specific analyses, we instead conducted four parallel analyses eliminating one state each time (Fig. A1). Results were fairly consistent across analyses, apart from the removal of Alabama. When participants from Alabama were excluded, we observed an association between nonpoint ambient exposure and elevated blood styrene.

Fig. A1

Association between ambient styrene quartiles and elevated blood styrene (>NHANES 95th percentile), excluding one state at a time to assess variability in NATA

We hypothesized that NATA data may represent different underlying information in Alabama, as compared with the other Gulf states. We used this information to select a subpopulation in which we had higher confidence in NATA data, ultimately excluding participants from Alabama for sensitivity analyses that were focused on NATA estimates of exposure.

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Werder, E.J., Sandler, D.P., Richardson, D.B. et al. Determinants of environmental styrene exposure in Gulf coast residents. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol 29, 831–841 (2019).

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