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The Chemical Marketplace: Coming Clean on Alkylphenols

by Bill Chameides | October 12th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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More than 80,000 chemicals are produced, used, and present in the United States. This is one of their stories.

Here’s an unusual health tip: Add sweets when you wash your sweats.

Before explaining why I’m offering that laundry helper, some backstory. Last month researchers from the University of Rhode Island reported that they’d found very low levels of what scientists call emerging chemicals of concern pretty much everywhere they collected water samples in and around the Narragansett Bay watershed. They found three compounds in particular: PBDEs, triclosan and alkylphenols. We’ve talked about the flame retardant PBDE and the anti-bacterial triclosan, but what’s the story with alkylphenols?

The Dirt on Alkylphenols

The Chemical Marketplace
A series that looks at chemicals in everyday consumer products
     Aluminum and antiperspirants »
     BPAF »
     Dioxin and eggs »
     Flame retardants and pets »
     Fluoride and water »
     Formaldehyde and no-iron shirts
     Insect repellents »
     Nanoparticles and food »
     PAH and seal coats: A no-brainer »
     PBDE and fire retardants »
     PFOA and popcorn »
     Piperonyl Butoxide, a pesticde »
     Propoxur and bedbugs »
     Rotenone, a pesticide »
     Spray foams, sealants, diisocyanates »
     TDCPP and the air »
     Triclosan and toothpaste »
     Trihalomethanes (THM) and
showering »

First used in the 1940s, alkylphenols today are found in a wide range of everyday products from household cleaners and spot removers to pesticides, paints, hair care products, cosmetics, food packaging, plastics and even spermicide. Their most common application is as a surfactant in detergents. (Surfactants make it easier to transfer material such as dirt from one liquid or surface to another.) Alkylphenols owe their cleaning prowess [pdf] to the fact that they can tackle both water-based and oily messes at the same time.

There are a number of alkylphenol compounds on the market, but nonylphenol ethoxylates or NPEs (alkylphenol ethoxylates with nine carbon atoms) account for roughly 80 percent of global production. The Environmental Protection Agency has singled out NPEs as well as the chemical nonylphenol (NP) for further study because of concern about their impact on the environment and us. (NPs can be a precursor to and breakdown product of NPE.)

In the United States we use hundreds of millions of pounds of NPEs and NPs annually [pdf]. This widespread use and release into the environment (primarily via industrial and wastewater treatment streams) have led to the compounds’ ubiquitous presence in the environment and hence largely explains the observation of the University of Rhode Island researchers.

Unfortunately, because alkylphenols are slow to biodegrade and tend to bioaccumulate especially in aquatic environments, they also move up the food chain and ultimately to us. Alkylphenols are in the dust in our homes, in our food (see here and here) as well as in our breast milk, blood, and urine. (More on alkylphenols.)

It’s true that alkylphenols aren’t unique in that respect — there is a growing list of chemicals that show up in us. The cause for concern with respect to the most common alkylphenols is that they are linked to reproductive and developmental changes in laboratory animals [pdf] as well as the feminization of male fish. (See here, here and here.) In short these alkylphenols, due to their structural similarity to natural hormones, can act as endocrine disruptors that mimic natural hormones in our bodies dis
rupting normal function.

Progress at EPA

The good news is that EPA has recently set its sights on NPE; the agency’s August 2010 action plan [pdf] for managing potential risks includes working with industrial users to eliminate the use of NPE where possible. Industrial laundries, historically a major user of NPE, are expected to voluntarily phase out its use in detergents by the end of 2014. In addition, “EPA intends to encourage the manufacturers of all NPE-containing direct-release products (e.g., firefighting gels and foams, dust-control agents and de-icers) to move to NPE-free formulation.” (Source [pdf])

As for retail use, EPA states that “NPEs were once commonly used in household laundry detergents” but that “EPA and the detergent manufacturers have cooperated to eliminate this use.” (Source [pdf]) And true enough, a limited search in the National Library of Medicine’s database for NPE and NP (using a few common synonyms such as nonoxynol, nonylphenol, nonylphenol ethoxylate) got only one hit for the use of NPE in laundry soap: for an old formulation of Purex.

However, there were a number of other hits: primarily hair colors, spot removers and pretreatments, and do-it-yourself items. One surprise hit was an OxiClean product (something I often use to memorialize the places where my wife’s darling little dog leaves her presents).

Dow Chemical, an alkylphenol manufacturer, states that the use of NPEs in household and consumer applications is declining but that their formulation can be found in household cleaning products such as “detergents, laundry prewash, hard-surface cleaners, [and] air fresheners.” So it’s safe to assume that NPE and NP are still on the consumer market.

So Are You Buying Alkyphenols at the Checkout Counter?

Alas, that’s not an easy question to answer. It’s relatively easy to find out that alkylphenols are commonly used in spot removers, for example. But you’ll run into roadblocks trying to find out if the specific spot remover you use has a specific type of alkylphenol like NPE. Looking on the label, you’re likely to find that it contains surfactants, but what kind of surfactants and do they include NPE? Probably no clue (although some products will indicate that they are NPE-free).

If you’re willing to do a good deal of snooping, you can go to the household products database I mentioned above to find out if a specific form of alkylphenols is in one of the products you buy. But going that route will require some work — there are a host of synonyms for NPE and NP (for a taste, see this long list of synonyms [pdf] compiled by the State of Maine).

Sweet Solutions for Avoiding the Stuff?

There are greener alternatives to alklyphenols. These guides may help: Best Laundry Ratings by GoodGuide (the brainchild of Dara O’Rourke, a professor of environmental and labor policy at the University of California, Berkeley) and Grist’s “Review of Six Green Laundry Detergents.” And then there’s that tip I offered at the top. Several alternatives to alkylphenols include sugar-based surfactants (hey, why not? It’s in everything else) as well as surfactants produced from corn and coconut husks. Yum, laundry time.

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