Five environmental groups and a labor union Tuesday petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to restrict use of chemicals found in many household detergents that have been linked to gender changes in fish and other aquatic life.
Led by the Sierra Club, the groups are seeking a ban on nonylphenol and nonylphenol ethoxylates in consumer and industrial detergents and other cleaning products. About 400 million pounds of the chemicals are produced each year in the United States, and much of it is flushed into sewers that empty into rivers and other waterways.
Under the Toxic Substances Control Act enacted 31 years ago, citizens have the authority to petition the EPA to regulate individual substances. However, it is a power that has been rarely invoked.
The new petition is the first involving an endocrine-disrupting chemical, a phenomenon discovered by scientists in the early 1990s in which man-made compounds mimic estrogen or other hormones.
Nonylphenol imitates estrogen, and male rainbow trout and other fish exposed to the chemical in laboratories become part-male and part-female, producing female egg proteins, according to EPA documents and several scientific studies.
“It is clear that the current unrestricted manufacture and release of nonylphenol and nonylphenol ethoxylates poses an unreasonable risk to the environment,” the groups wrote in their petition.
The human effects are unknown. The petition calls for more research into health effects, particularly on employees of dry cleaners and laundries.
Companies that manufacture or use the compounds say they have been used in cleaning products for more than 50 years. They “are among the most extensively studied compounds in commerce today. Few compounds have the same degree of available test data or have received the same degree of scientific scrutiny,” said the Alkylphenols & Ethoxylates Research Council, which represents the companies.
The industry group describes nonylphenol as a weak estrogen that is far less potent than natural estrogens in human sewage. But nonylphenol ethoxylates – those used in most cleaning products – are not estrogenic, said Barbara Losey, deputy director of the industry’s research council.