Nonylphenol ethoxylates in detergents

Nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPEs) are surfactants used in some commercial and institutional detergents that enhance their effectiveness, but also cause problems. They can cause skin and eye irritation in people who work with them. NPEs degrade within hours or days to nonylphenols, which are linked to harmful effects on the environment (particularly aquatic life). Nonylphenols accumulate in the environment and take a long time to break down.

In the absence of regulations, the U.S. EPA has led efforts by industrial laundries, hotel groups, health and long-term care systems, and many of their suppliers to reduce the use of detergents containing NPEs. The MPCA has worked with industry partners to track voluntary reductions and noted significant progress, particularly in lowering the levels of NPEs reaching wastewater treatment facilities.

  • In 2013, MPCA surveyed Minnesota’s major industrial laundries and confirmed they had stopped using products containing NPEs, reducing annual discharges of NPEs by about 323 tons statewide compared to 2006-2007. Seven of the largest laundries surveyed were in the Twin Cities metro area had reduced their discharges of NPEs by an estimated 179 tons.
  • In 2014, MPCA analyzed concentrations of nonylphenols and NPEs in wastewater coming into the Twin Cities' main wastewater treatment facility and found little change compared to 2006-2007 data from the same site. The agency also sampled at four points in the metro area sewer system where the wastewater was primarily from residential areas. The results suggested that households were contributing relatively small amounts of NPEs to the main wastewater plant.
  • In 2016, a survey of hundreds of hospitals, hotels, and long-term care facilities showed that most, particularly those subject to sustainable purchasing requirements, had eliminated use of NPEs. The MPCA and its partners identified Minnesota companies that offered detergents free of NPEs that comply with the U.S. EPA’s Safer Choice Standard or are certified by Green Seal. Team members were successful in persuading some large users of detergent containing NPEs to switch to safer options.
  • Later in 2016, MPCA conducted a second round of sampling on incoming wastewater at the Twin Cities' main treatment facility and found significant reductions of nonylphenols, and smaller reductions of NPEs.

The Twin Cities' main wastewater treatment facility has the ability to remove most of the nonylphenols and NPEs that reaches the plant — from tens of thousands of nanograms per liter down to hundreds of nanograms/liter. That may not be the case for smaller treatment plants or septic systems around the state, so reducing use of products containing NPEs is still critical.

Minnesota manufacturers of non-NPE detergents

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