July 1, 2009
EPA Takes Action on Gender-Bending Chemical
Washington, DC: Under pressure from a coalition of laundry workers, physicians, commercial fishermen, environmental and public health groups, EPA is taking the first step toward regulating nonylphenol ethloxylates (NPEs) a gender-bending chemical used principally in cleaning products and detergents. The EPA will be taking public comment on how best to test for NPEs and how to evaluate industrial laundry worker exposure to NPEs.
"There are serious gaps in our understanding of the hazards of NPE and nonylphenol the chemical NPEs are converted back into when released into the environment" said Albert Ettinger of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. "The existing studies show that NPEs can change the biology of male fish so they generate female egg proteins at extraordinarily low levels. EPA ignored these studies because there was insufficient evidence of the impact on fish reproduction. But with incomplete studies of fish and few studies on long-term human reproduction, EPA had to take action to fill the gaps."
Even at low levels, NPEs are known to disrupt normal male-to-female sex ratios and harm the ability of fish to reproduce. Cases of such “intersexed” fish have been documented from the Potomac River to the Pacific coast. Just a tiny amount of NPE in water, less than one part per billion, can harm rainbow trout, salmon, oysters and winter flounder. And although research into the human health effects of NPEs is limited, one study shows that exposure may cause miscarriage and fetal growth defects.
There are viable, readily available alternatives that do not contain NPEs or other endocrine disruptors. Leading detergent producers like Unilever and Procter & Gamble do not use NPE in their products. Many other companies have joined EPA’s Safer Detergents Stewardship Initiative (SDSI) and have chosen to voluntarily eliminate the chemical.
"When fish change gender and develop sexual deformities because of the chemicals we discharge into our streams, it’s a danger signal we should take very seriously," said Ed Hopkins, Director of the Sierra Club’s Environmental Quality Program. "While these voluntary initiatives have helped make progress, we need the full force of the EPA to actually solve the problem and today they’ve taken the first step."
"Voluntary programs may influence companies that sell to consumers" said Eric Frumin, Director of Health and Safety at Workers United, the predominant union representing workers in the laundry industry. "But strong mandates are needed to assure that industrial laundry companies protect their workers’ health. Without mandates, these firms can stay with NPEs despite the questions on the risk to workers. Since NPEs have already been effectively banned in Canada and the EU with no disruption in laundry service, there is no excuse for any such continuing danger."