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EPA Action Plan for Nonylphenol and Nonylphenol Ethoxylates

October 5th, 2010

Nonylphenol ethoxylates in soaps and cleanersThis article discusses the EPA’s action plans for the compounds, nonylphenol (NP) and nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs).

The EPA released new action plans on August 18th, 2010 to review the potential health risks of Benzidene and its congeners, Nonylphenol (NP) and Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs), and Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD). These compounds were chosen based on their presence in humans, their persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBT) characteristics, and their use in consumer products and production.1 The action plans may result in new use rules, new reporting limits, or the banning or limiting their production and use.

According to the EPA’s Action Plan, a major reason for reviewing NP and NPEs is their widespread release into, and their toxicity in, the aquatic environment. NP is actually a mixture of various structured compounds, that differ in their level of toxicity. NP is used primarily in manufacturing NPEs, which first break down into shorter chain NPEs over time, and then eventually back to NP. While NP is more toxic than the NPEs, they are all toxic to plants, fish and aquatic invertebrates.

NPEs are used extensively in the US because of their excellent surfactant properties. They are used in soaps, industrial laundry detergents, degreasers, cleaners, dry cleaning aids, indoor pesticides, cosmetics, paints and coatings, dust control agents, emulsifiers and adhesives, to name a few. They belong to a group of surfactant compounds called the alkylphenols and alkylphenols ethoxylates (APEs). There are alternative APEs that could be substituted for NP and NPEs that are less toxic, but these alternatives are either more costly or do not work quite as well in all applications.

NP and NPEs are commonly found in surface waters in the US and have been found to absorb into sediments and soil, demonstrating one basis of bioaccumulation and environmental persistence.

NP has also been found in human breast milk and urine. Human exposure to NP and NPEs is thought to come primarily from cleaners, detergents, agricultural and indoor pesticides, cosmetics, hair dyes, and aquatic foods like shellfish and fish. From a health perspective, these compounds are thought to be estrogenic, and may have an even more pronounced effect in children because their exposure per pound of body weight is higher.

The EPA will be looking into the following topics:

  1. Supporting and encouraging the voluntary phase-out of NPEs in industrial laundry detergents. (This voluntary phase out has already begun, and has a target completion date of December 2013.)
  2. Simultaneous proposals for a) a “significant new use” rule, requiring any company wanting to add NPEs to their cleaning and detergent products to notify the EPA in advance to allow for regulatory action, and b) a test rule for any use of NP and NPEs, requiring the development of information to assess the effects on human health and the environment.
  3. Adding NP and NPEs to the list of chemicals included in the Toxic Substance Control Act that “present or may present an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment.”
  4. Adding NP and NPEs to the Toxic Release Inventory list.
  5. Supporting and encouraging the elimination of other uses of NP and NPEs, including instituting regulatory action, if needed.

Three groups of compounds were covered by the action plans. The first group, the benzidene dyes, was discussed in a previous Lab Science News article, and a subsequent edition will cover Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD).

Additional information may be found on the EPA’s website, accessible at:

1. EPA. Action Plans: Dyes Derived from Benzidene and Its Congeners, page 1, Section II; Nonylphenol (NP) and Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs) Action Plan, page 1, Section II; and Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) Action Plan, page 1, Section II, August 2010.

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