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Groups seek ban on cleaning chemicals

The products, used in detergents, are linked to gender changes in fish.

June 06, 2007|Marla Cone | Times Staff Writer

Five environmental groups and a labor union Tuesday petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to restrict the use of chemicals that are in many household detergents and 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.

Federal documents show that eight other petitions have been filed in the last dozen years. The EPA denied the requests. However, the most recent one led to a lawsuit and an agreement by the EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission to regulate lead in children's jewelry.

The new petition is the first involving an endocrine-disrupting chemical, a phenomenon discovered by scientists in the early 1990s in which artificial compounds mimic estrogen or other hormones. The EPA is developing methods to screen chemicals for hormonal activity but currently does not check for such risks when setting environmental standards.

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.

"Tens of thousands of workers may be exposed to these harmful chemicals each day," said Eric Frumin, director of the Health and Safety Program at UNITE HERE, a labor union that represents laundry workers and one of the groups that filed the petition.

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," said the Alkylphenols & Ethoxylates Research Council, which represents the companies. "Few compounds have the same degree of available test data or have received the same degree of scientific scrutiny."

One industry analysis found that concentrations of the compounds exceeded new standards set by the EPA last year in five of 1,255 sampled waterways.

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.

Nonylphenol compounds also are used in the manufacture of paper, textiles, paints, lube oils, tires and other products. In addition to the ban for detergents, the petition is seeking restrictions on other uses and labels on all products that contain them.

Although use of the chemicals is unrestricted in the United States, some large U.S. companies have voluntarily stopped using them, including Procter & Gamble and Unilever. Wal-Mart last year named nonylphenol ethoxylates as one of three chemicals that it had asked its suppliers to phase out.

Instead of regulations, the EPA is developing a voluntary "Safer Detergents" program to reward companies that switch to less-toxic cleaning agents such as alcohol ethoxylates, which are available at comparable cost.

The European Union is in the process of banning many uses and Canada has set stringent standards.

But legal experts say that the EPA has limited authority to ban chemicals already in use when the toxics law was enacted in 1976.

Under that law, the agency must prove a chemical poses an "unreasonable risk" to human health or the environment, and then compare costs and benefits of potential restrictions and choose "the least burdensome" one.

The last industrial chemical the EPA banned was asbestos in 1989.

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marla.cone@latimes.com

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