SPRI Home About SPRI

Nonylphenol ethoxylates

NPEs, NPEOs, Nonoxynol, Antarox, Makon

SPRI Emission Reporting Threshold
1.00 Kg/yr Pollutant Emissions to Water
1.00 Kg/yr Pollutant Emissions to Waste Water
1.00 Kg/yr Pollutant Emissions to Land
Disclaimer
This sheet is a generic summary, designed to give the reader a basic level of background information about the substance in question. Great care has been taken to represent as effectively and correctly as possible the broad range of (not necessarily consistent) information which is available from a variety of sources. The reader must accept therefore that this sheet has no legal status and cannot be relied upon in any legal proceedings. SEPA disclaims any responsibility or liability whatsoever for errors and omissions in this sheet.
What is it?
Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are a group of related chemicals. Under normal conditions, NPEs are oily liquids or waxy solids, varying from being colourless to having a light orange colour. NPEs are chemically stable and unreactive. The degree to which they are soluble in water varies, but most are readily soluble in organic (carbon-containing) solvents.
What is it used for?
NPEs are used mainly as cleaning agents and detergents, in a variety of situations. Because of the various useful properties of different types of NPEs, they are also added to plastics and rubbers, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, paints and coatings, agro-chemicals and chemicals used in paper making.
Where does it come from?
Releases of NPEs may occur during their manufacture and during the many uses and disposal of products to which they are added. There are not thought to be any natural sources of NPEs to the environment.
How might it affect the environment?
NPEs are known to be very toxic to wildlife, particularly aquatic organisms. There is also concern that they mimic the behaviour of animal hormones, that they are an "endocrine disruptor". NPEs break down relatively easily into Nonylphenols (NPs), which are more harmful and can be very persistent in the environment. This persistence means that they can be transported far from the point of original release of NPEs. NPs are accumulated and concentrated by aquatic organisms and birds. It is therefore possible that the presence of NPEs and hence NPs in the environment poses a long-term threat to wildlife on both a local and global scale.
How might exposure to it affect human health?
Nonylphenol ethoxylates can enter the body either by inhalation of air containing nonylphenol ethoxylates, ingestion of contaminated food or water, or by dermal contact with nonylphenol ethoxylates or products containing nonylphenol ethoxylates. There is little evidence for any significant effects of exposure to nonylphenol ethoxylates on human health. However, exposure to high levels of nonylphenol ethoxylates may cause irritation of the lungs, digestive system, skin and eyes. Nonylphenol ethoxylates are thought to interfere with hormones in animals and may therefore interfere with the development and reproductive system in animals. Nonylphenol ethoxylates readily degrade in the environment to the more toxic, nonylphenol. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has not designated nonylphenol ethoxylates in terms of their carcinogenicity. However, exposure to nonylphenol ethoxylates at normal background levels is unlikely to have any adverse effect on human health.
What steps are being taken to limit the potential impacts?
Since 1976, the UK government has had a voluntary agreement with industry that NPEs are not added to domestic detergents. The main aim of this is to protect aquatic environments. Otherwise, releases of NPEs are controlled through the UK Pollution, Prevention and Control (PPC) Regulations. At a European level, they are regulated through the Directive which evaluates and controls the risks of substances known to be in the environment (793/93), that concerned with pollution of the aquatic environment (76/464/EEC) and it is listed as a "priority hazardous substance" under the Water Framework Directive. At an international level, it is recommended that the use of NPEs be phased out under the OSPAR Convention and it listed as a substance for priority action under the Helsinki Convention, which protect the marine environments of the north-east Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea respectively.