Alkylphenols and their ethoxylates (APEs) are a family of chemicals used mainly as surfactants in commercial detergents and cleaners. They are also used in paints, pesticides and other agrochemicals, personal-care products, in industrial processes, and oilfields. Their breakdown products include persistent toxic chemicals that build up in fish and wildlife.

How am I exposed?

APEs are among the chemicals found at the highest concentrations in U.S. house dust.[1] They are also found in air, drinking water, and food.[2, 3] As a result, APEs have been detected in human urine, cord blood, and breast milk.[4]

Why should I be concerned?

APEs are among the chemicals found at the highest concentrations in wastewater effluent and sediment.[5] APEs break down into chemicals such as nonylphenol and octylphenol, which are persistent, with half-lives estimated at up to 60 years in marine sediments. Nonylphenol can also bioaccumulate in some aquatic animals. These chemicals have been widely detected in surface water and sediment, and build up in fish and other wildlife. Large amounts are released to the environment just from their use in commercial laundry detergents—estimated at more than two million pounds released to wastewater treatment plants just in California.[6]

Much of the concern about release of APEs into the environment is due to their toxic effects on fish and wildlife. Nonylphenol, for example, feminizes male fish and otherwise affects reproduction in fish and invertebrates.[6] It also affects growth and harms the immune system.[6]

There are also concerns about the effects of APEs on human health, including reproductive, nervous system, and immune effects.[7]

What can government and industry do?

The state of California has begun to address APEs by proposing nonylphenol ethoxylates in laundry detergent as a priority product-chemical combination and opening the door for restriction. California should move forward with restrictions, and other states should follow suit. The Washington State Legislature is currently considering listing APEs as a priority chemical class and directing the Department of Ecology to consider restrictions on use.

Manufacturers, retailers, and users should ensure alkylphenol ethoxylates are not present in products they make, sell, or use. Some manufacturers and retailers have already taken this action.

How can I reduce exposure?

Consumers can avoid products that list nonylphenol or octylphenol ethoxylates as ingredients, and ask policymakers, manufacturers, and retailers to restrict or eliminate use of these chemicals.

Endnotes

  1. Mitro, S.; Dodson, R.; Singla, V.; Adamkiewicz, G.; Elmi, A.; Tilly, M.; Zota, A., Consumer product chemicals in indoor dust: a quantitative meta-analysis of U.S. studies. Environ Sci Technol 2016, 50 (10661-10672).
  2. Benotti, M., RA Trenholm, BJ Vanderford, JC Holady, BD Stanford, and SA Snyder, Pharmaceuticals and endocrine disrupting compounds in U.S. drinking water. Environmental Science and Technology 2009, 43, 597-603.
  3. Rudel, R. A.; Dodson, R. E.; Perovich, L. J.; Morello-Frosch, R.; Camann, D. E.; Zuniga, M. M.; Yau, A. Y.; Just, A. C.; Brody, J. G., Semivolatile endocrine-disrupting compounds in paired indoor and outdoor air in two northern California communities. Environ Sci Technol 2010, 44 (17), 6583-6590.
  4. Calafat, A., X Ye, L-Y Wong, JA Reidy, and LL Needham, Exposure of the U.S. population to bisphenol A and 4-tertiary-Octylphenol: 2003-2004. Environmental Health Perspectives 2008, 116 (1), 39-44.
  5. Meador, J.; Yeh, A.; Young, G.; Gallagher, E., Contaminants of emerging concern in a large temperate estuary. Environ Poll 2016, 213, 254-267.
  6. California Department of Toxic Substances Control. Product-Chemical Profile for Nonylphenol Ethoxylates in Laundry Detergents; 2018. https://www.dtsc.ca.gov/SCP/upload/Internal_Profile_for-NPEs_Laundry_Detergent.pdf
  7. Acir, I.-H.; Guenther, K., Endocrine-disrupting metabolites of alkylphenol ethoxylates – A critical review of analytical methods, environmental occurrences, toxicity, and regulation. Sci Total Environ 2018, 635, 1530-1546.