Part of our Chemicals of Concern series.
Why the chemicals are considered of concern:
Nonylphenol (NP) and Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs): NPEs are surfactants that are common ingredients in many formulated consumer products, and are also used in various industrial applications and pesticides. NP is primarily used to make NPEs.
NP and some NPEs are persistent in the environment, moderately bioaccumulative and extremely toxic. Other NPEs are not as toxic and are less persistent, but are still highly toxic to aquatic organisms; moreover, these NPEs can degrade in the environment back into NP. The widespread and multiple uses of these chemicals mean they can enter our food chain and water supply, raising serious concerns about both human and environmental exposures. Human biomonitoring data reveals the presence of NP in human breast milk, umbilical cord blood, and urine.
NP is a suspected endocrine disruptor (PDF) and has been shown to have estrogenic effects (PDF) in a number of aquatic organisms, human breast tumor cells, and laboratory rodents. A major concern for people is that bioaccumulation may occur from multiple sources of exposure. There’s also the potential for cumulative effects from exposure to NP and NPEs in combination with other endocrine disrupting chemicals. A specific health concern arising from NP’s estrogenic properties is the potential increased risk for breast cancer.
Exposure to NP in high concentrations is extremely destructive (PDF) to the upper respiratory tract, eyes, and skin. Symptoms include coughing, wheezing, a hoarse voice, shortness of breath, headache, nausea, and vomiting. Prolonged skin contact with NP causes burns, irritation, and swelling.
Where it is most commonly found:
NPEs are used in a range of industrial and consumer applications, including detergents cleaners, degreasers, dry cleaning aids, wetting agents, paper and textile processing formulations, and prewash spot removers. They serve several functions: as wetting agents (which enable a liquid solution to spread evenly across surfaces), as emulsifiers (which allow normally immiscible liquids to mix together), as defoaming agents (which hinder the formation of foam in liquids) and as dispersants (which break up a liquid such as oil into small droplets or separate particles to prevent settling or clumping).
NP and NPEs are produced in large volumes and have uses that can lead to widespread exposure. They’re found in water downstream from industrial facilities where they are used, and are present in both the sludge (solids) and effluents produced by sewage treatment plants. Such sludge is often used for agricultural purposes (PDF), consequently introducing the possibility of release into the food chain and water supply. NPEs have been detected in drinking water (PDF), and are among the toxic chemical used in natural gas hydro-fracking.
Limited U.S. regulation:
The European Union has already banned or severely restricted many uses of NP and NPEs. However, only last year did the U.S. EPA issue a chemical action plan to address the health risks associated with these chemicals. To date EPA has relied on voluntary cooperation from industry to help phase out the use of NP and NPEs in household laundry detergents, mainly through EPA’s Design for the Environment (DfE) Safer Detergents Stewardship Initiative. The DfE program incentivizes the production of safer products through a label system, which products for consumer or commercial purchase can earn if they meet certain safety criteria. Currently, the program’s impact is limited to the use of NPs and NPEs in household detergents, although industrial detergents remain a major source of NPEs to the environment.
What should be done:
It’s challenging to identify all of the products containing NPEs. For example, sometimes NPEs are identified in the ingredient list on the labels for certain personal care products and spermicides. However, they are rarely listed on household products like cleaners, detergents, and pesticides. These chemicals fall within the broader category of surfactants called alkyl phenol ethoxylates. They may be identified by a variety of names, including nonoxynol, nonylphenol polyethylene glycol ether, nonylphenoxypoly(ethylenoxy)ethanol, POE (n) nonyl phenol, POE (n) Nonyl Phenyl Ether, Antarox, Makon, and many others.
In order for companies and the public to avoid NP and NPEs we need policies that require better public disclosure of chemical ingredients in products. As for all chemicals, EPA needs better information on NP and NPEs hazards, uses and exposures. It also desperately needs the authority to put in place mandatory restrictions on the use of such chemicals where appropriate. The Agency does not currently posses these powers, handicapping its ability to protect our health and our environment.
Environmental and health organizations across the country have been calling for these types of reforms through the overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the primary law meant to protect public health and the environment from toxic chemicals. You can help support TSCA reform by letting your legislators know that you care about this issue. Join I Am Not a Guinea Pig on Facebook and Twitter, and check back here (www.NotaGuineaPig.org) for updates.
Will NP and NPEs keep you up worrying at night?
What would you do about these chemicals?