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Octylphenol ethoxylates

OPEs, Igepal, Triton X-100

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
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?
Octylphenol ethoxylates (OPEs) are a group of related chemicals. They are chemically very similar to Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs). Under normal conditions, OPEs are thick liquids or waxy solids, varying in colour from clear to light orange. OPEs are stable. 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?
OPEs are widely used in cleaning agents. They are also added to paints, coatings, treatments for textiles and chemicals used in paper manufacture. OPEs also have some medical applications. For example, they are added to some drugs to improve the rate at which they are absorbed in the intestine.
Where does it come from?
Releases of OPEs may occur during their manufacture or during the many uses and disposal of products containing them. There are not thought to be any natural sources of OPEs to the environment.
How might it affect the environment?
OPEs 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". OPEs break down relatively easily into Octylphenols (OPs), 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 OPEs. OPs are accumulated and concentrated by aquatic organisms and birds. It is therefore possible that the presence of OPEs and hence OPs 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?
Octylphenol ethoxylates can enter the body either by inhalation of air containing octylphenol ethoxylates, ingestion of contaminated food or water, or by dermal contact with octylphenol ethoxylates or products containing octylphenol ethoxylates. There is little evidence available for the full effects of exposure to octylphenol ethoxylates on human health. However, exposure to high levels of octylphenol ethoxylates may cause irritation of the lungs, digestive system, skin and eyes. Octylphenol ethoxylates are thought to interfere with hormones in animals and may therefore interfere with the development and reproductive system in animals. Octylphenol ethoxylates readily degrade in the environment to the more toxic, octylphenol. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has not designated octylphenol ethoxylates in terms of their carcinogenicity. However, exposure to octylphenol 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 OPEs are not added to domestic detergents. The main aim of this is to protect aquatic environments. Otherwise, releases of OPEs 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 OPEs be phased out under the OSPAR Convention and it is 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.