How Big Companies are Making You Unwitting Accomplices in the Toxic Water Cycle

Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs) in Clothes

Story at-a-glance -

  • Nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE) is a toxic surfactant used to manufacture clothing; when consumers wash their clothes, NPEs are released into local water supplies where wastewater treatment plants are unable to remove it
  • When NPEs enter the environment, they break down into nonylphenol (NP), a toxic, endocrine-disrupting chemical that accumulates in sediments and builds up in fish and wildlife
  • Many laundry detergents and household cleaning supplies also contain NPEs, which are rinsed down the drain, further polluting water supplies
  • Greenpeace is calling on clothing brands like Adidas, Abercrombie & Fitch, Ralph Lauren, Converse, Calvin Klein and Nike to eliminate all hazardous chemicals, including NPEs, from their supply chains and products
  • Look for organic, environmentally friendly clothing produced without NPEs and other toxic chemicals, and also look for the “NPE-free” label on your laundry detergent and cleaning supplies

By Dr. Mercola

Just as organic food is an integral part of a healthy lifestyle, organic clothing is also an important factor for both your health and that of the environment.

The importance of buying organic when it comes to your clothing lies in what the clothing does not contain, specifically nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs).

Why Washing Your Clothes Can be Hazardous...

NPE is an inexpensive nonionic surfactant frequently used in the global textile industry.

In the largest textile manufacturing hubs, like China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Turkey, these toxic chemicals are commonly discharged into waterways, including rivers, lakes and seas.

When NPEs enter the environment, they break down into nonylphenol (NP), a toxic, endocrine-disrupting chemical that accumulates in sediments and builds up in fish and wildlife.

However, NPE residues can also remain in the clothing itself – that is, until you wash it.

Greenpeace International has recently released a report called Dirty Laundry: Reloaded.

This landmark research investigation revealed that a significant percentage of NPEs are released upon normal washing, essentially "making consumers unwitting accomplices in the release of these hazardous substances into public water supplies."

According to Greenpeace, when 14 clothing samples from leading clothing brands were washed, a lower concentration of between 17 percent and 94 percent NPEs was found in the washed fabric, compared to identical unwashed fabric. Greenpeace explains:

"These results indicate that a single wash, using conditions that simulate standard domestic laundering, can wash out a substantial fraction of NPE residues present within textile products, with more than 80% being washed out for half of the plain fabric samples tested. This study suggests that all residues of NPEs within textile products will be washed out over their lifetime and that in many cases this will have occurred after just the first few washes."

Water Treatment Plants Make NPEs Even More Toxic

The problem, of course, is that once in the water supply, even the most sophisticated water treatment plants are unable to remove NPEs and their toxic metabolites. In fact, according to a Sierra Club report,1 sewage processing can make NPE metabolites like NPs even more toxic, more estrogenic, and more persistent than NPE itself.

Greenpeace continues:

"These NPEs are... discharged to wastewater treatment plants, which do not effectively treat or prevent the release of these hazardous substances into the environment; in fact, they break down NPEs to form toxic and hormone-disrupting NPs that are then released within the treated water. Whereas discharges from the manufacturing of these products take place in textile manufacturing hubs, commonly located in the 'Global South' – in this case

China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Turkey – the washing of the finished articles can take place anywhere in the world, wherever the products are sold, and even in countries where legislation restricting the use of NPEs is in place."

NPEs have, in fact, been banned already in Europe, and restricted in the United States and Canada. Even Wal-Mart has listed NPEs as one of three chemicals they're asking suppliers to phase out. However, even people in these countries will remain at risk until the chemicals are banned from the textile industry entirely. Until this time, virtually any time new clothing is washed, NPEs will be released into the environment, even in areas that have banned their use in manufacturing.

Greenpeace is calling on clothing brands like Adidas, Abercrombie & Fitch, Ralph Lauren, Converse, Calvin Klein and Nike to eliminate all releases of all hazardous chemicals from their supply chains and products. As it stands, even clothing companies that set limits on NPEs in their final products are not going far enough.

Greenpeace expands:

"Some major clothing brands set limits on the presence of certain hazardous substances in their products, as part of their programmes to ensure product safety. The limits typically set by these brands for the presence of alkylphenols/alkylphenol ethoxylates (APs/APEs) in their products (the respective groups of chemicals that NP/NPEs fall under), as well as limits set by other product standards such as Oeko-tex, are far too high and therefore still allow for the continued use of these chemicals during manufacturing – and therefore their discharge both in the country of manufacture and the country of sale.

These limits allow for the products sold in countries around the world to contain many tonnes of APEs that would ultimately end up contaminating our waterways.

For example, it is estimated that up to 15 to 20 tonnes of NPEs would be permitted within the textile products sold globally by H&M each year, based on its current limit of 100 ppm, and a similar picture is likely for other clothing brands. Similarly, if the EU were to adopt a 100 ppm limit, it would also permit up to 88.1 tonnes of NPEs within textile products from outside the EU to be imported into Germany each year and up to 103.2 tonnes within such products imported into Spain, for example."

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Many Laundry Detergents Also Contain NPEs

Whether or not your clothing contains NPE residues becomes a moot point if the detergent you're using to wash it already contains it, and unfortunately this is all too common. Look for evidence of NPE on your laundry detergent label – or declaration that it's not in there. Some detergents contain NPE alternatives such as alcohol ethoxylate, which the Sierra Club suggests is less toxic and can break down naturally.

The Sierra Club states that roughly 270 million pounds of NPEs are used in the United States each year, and most of the use is for laundry and other cleaning purposes. As a result, "the majority of the NPEs that get manufactured each year end up being rinsed down the drain," adding to the amounts already released by the textile industry and in clothing residues, and significantly magnifying the growing burden of this toxic chemical.

NPE is a "Gender-Bender" Chemical

NPE is an endocrine disruptor and estrogen mimicker that can potentially cause hormonal problems, or even cancer. When you absorb NPEs, your body can't tell the difference between NPEs and estrogen. Organisms exposed to NPEs show kidney and liver damage, decreased testicular growth and sperm count, disrupted growth and metabolism, and increased mortality. When rainbow trout are exposed to NPEs, they become part male and part female! According to the Sierra Club, who has petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate NPEs:

"When absorbed by humans and animals, the body can't distinguish between NPEs and this potent hormone. The result is cellular confusion, and since the hormone NPEs mimic is sexually related, that confusion takes a reproductive and/or developmental form. In the lab, for example, male rainbow trout exposed to NPEs become part male and part female.

Findings like these have led researchers to believe that NPE pollution is likely at least partially if not entirely responsible for a variety of odd gender bending phenomenon now being seen in aquatic species. And while human effects remain unknown, scientists believe they may be affecting people, too."

In fact, in the last three decades the number of boys being born has decreased significantly, and researchers have pointed to "gender-bending" chemicals like NPEs as the possible culprit. Sadly, a U.S. Geological Survey study found metabolites of NPEs in more than 61 percent of tested streams in the United States,2 signaling just how extensive the contamination has already become.

Do You Want Clothes That Don't Contain Toxic Chemicals?

Join the Greenpeace Detox campaign, launched in July 2011, which is campaigning to stop industry poisoning waterways around the world with hazardous, persistent and hormone-disrupting chemicals. Nike, Adidas, Puma, H&M, and C&A are among the clothing brands that have already committed to the campaign, but many top brands still need some persuading. On a personal level, you can "detox" your wardrobe using these tips from Greenpeace:

  • Buy organic clothing
  • Support "green" brands that use environmentally friendly fabrics and natural dyes, or make clothing from recycled materials
  • Buy second-hand clothes, and when buying new choose "classics" that you can wear again and again
  • Buy quality clothing items that are made to last, instead of cheaply made garments you'll be forced to replace often
  • Before tossing a garment, fix it if possible (with a new zipper/buttons, etc.) or take it to a tailor (or be crafty yourself!) to be re-fashioned (turning a dress into a skirt or jeans into shorts, for instance)

Finally, avoid using laundry detergents and other cleaning supplies that contain NPEs. Look especially for "Does not contain..." because manufacturers are not yet required by law to list what is in the product. However, green companies will proudly display what is NOT in the product if they want to sell their product to environmentally conscious people like you. If you're interested in the natural Enzyme Formula detergent we produced, you can read more about it here.

+ Sources and References