Surfactant Scrutiny | October 15, 2007 Issue - Vol. 85 Issue 42 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 85 Issue 42 | pp. 33-35
Issue Date: October 15, 2007

Surfactant Scrutiny

EPA considers requiring tests on nonylphenol ethoxylates for long-term effects on aquatic life
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Sustainability, Safety
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
Spin Cycle
Nonylphenol ethoxylate surfactants are used in some laundry detergents and cleaners, as well as in industrial applications.
Credit: Shutterstock
Spin Cycle
Nonylphenol ethoxylate surfactants are used in some laundry detergents and cleaners, as well as in industrial applications.
Credit: Shutterstock

A FAMILY of surfactants used in a wide variety of applications, from industrial laundries to pulp and paper processing, faces a growing regulatory and market squeeze. The most recent move came last month when the Environmental Protection Agency granted a request from environmental and other activist groups seeking toxicity tests on the long-term effects of these chemicals on aquatic life. EPA, however, rejected requests for product-labeling requirements and other regulatory actions.

The surfactants, nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), and their breakdown products can harm aquatic animals and plants, according to EPA. Nonylphenol, which is the raw material for making NPEs as well as one of its breakdown products, degrades slowly, the agency says. Millions of pounds of NPEs are made each year in the U.S., and the level of nonylphenol in U.S. surface waters is increasing.

Efforts to curb use of NPEs and nonylphenol are already under way. Under an initiative launched in 2006, EPA is urging chemical makers and formulators to voluntarily phase out the use of NPEs in detergents and cleaners (C&EN, June 19, 2006, page 14). In 2005, the agency completed water pollution control recommendations on nonylphenol for use by state regulators.

Meanwhile, the European Union has banned NPEs and nonylphenol, and Canada requires many facilities to have a plan for reducing the discharge of these chemicals in wastewater. And last year, Wal-Mart called for its suppliers to phase out the use of NPEs in cleaning products.

In September, EPA announced it would start the regulatory process to require testing of the chemicals. The agency did so in response to a petition seeking a host of regulatory actions on nonylphenol and NPEs. Filing the request were the Sierra Club, three regional environmental groups, a union representing commercial laundry workers, and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

EPA agreed with the groups that more data may be needed to evaluate the risks posed to aquatic life by chronic exposure to NPEs with shorter ethoxylate chains. Examples of these short-chain NPEs are nonylphenol monoethoxylate and nonylphenol diethoxylate.

The dominant commercial NPE is nonylphenol nonylethoxylate, though manufacturers also make NPEs with chains of up to 20 ethoxylate groups. In the environment, the ethoxylate portion of the molecule is broken down first, generating shorter-chain congeners and, eventually, nonylphenol.

In response to the petition, EPA also said it would consider requiring companies to assess the toxicity and environmental fate of nonylphenol.

The Alkylphenols & Ethoxylates Research Council (APERC), a group representing major producers of alkylphenols and alkylphenol ethoxylates, says significant information already exists on the short-chain NPEs. Extensive research on nonylphenol and NPEs "demonstrates that current uses do not present a risk to human health or the environment," the council says in a statement.

Meanwhile, EPA rejected the petitioners' requests to require aquatic toxicity studies on mixtures of nonylphenol and NPEs. The agency also denied the groups' call for extensive endocrine-disruption studies.

Furthermore, EPA refused to require companies to conduct research related to human exposures.

These chemicals are not considered toxic to humans, says Robert Fensterheim, executive director of APERC. For instance, one NPE, nonoxynol-9, is widely used as a spermicide, he tells C&EN.

IN ADDITION to toxicity tests, the petition sought regulatory controls under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. The groups asked EPA to require labels on all products containing nonylphenol and NPEs, restrict the use of the chemicals by users with septic systems or that are otherwise not connected to a "well-managed" wastewater treatment plant, and ban the use of nonylphenol and NPEs in industrial and consumer detergents. NPEs and nonylphenol are broken down to varying degrees during wastewater treatment.

Albert Ettinger, senior attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, one of the petitioners, said the groups asked EPA to regulate NPEs under the chemical control law—rather than other statutes—because there are "clear substitutes" for the surfactants. Some formulators have switched to alternative surfactants, such as alcohol ethoxylates, and more are expected to do so in response to Wal-Mart's preferred ingredients policy (C&EN, Jan. 29, page 13).

Under the federal chemical control law, the agency faces considerable legal, economic, and scientific hurdles to require labels on, restrict, or ban chemicals. EPA must provide data showing that a compound poses an unreasonable risk to health or the environment. The agency also must determine the benefits of the chemical and the availability of substitutes for its uses. It then must calculate the economic effects of labeling, restricting, or banning the substance. The agency has not completed any TSCA regulation for these purposes since a landmark court decision in 1991 overturned EPA's attempt to ban asbestos, a known carcinogen.

EPA rejected the petitioners' request for labeling, use restriction, and a ban on nonylphenol and NPEs in detergents because the environmental groups did not provide data on the estimated costs or efficacy of these regulatory actions.

Ettinger says the groups provided cost estimates and indicated what substances could substitute for NPEs. The cost difference between the use of NPEs and less toxic surfactants, he says, is small, especially if increased use of alternatives stimulates production and brings down their price.

The groups, Ettinger says, are weighing whether to appeal in federal court the agency's rejections of portions of their petition. They must decide by the end of October.

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