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Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs)

As per the Government of Canada (2007),

“Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are a class of the broader group of compounds known as alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs). NPEs are high-volume chemicals that have been used for more than 40 years as detergents, emulsifiers, wetting agents and dispersing agents. Nonylphenol polyethoxylate-containing products are used in many sectors, including textile processing, pulp and paper processing, paints, resins and protective coatings, oil and gas recovery, steel manufacturing, pest control products and power generation. A variety of cleaning products, degreasers and detergents are also available for institutional and domestic use. These products have numerous applications, including controlling deposits on machinery, cleaning equipment, scouring fibres, as wetting and de-wetting agents, in dyeing, in machine felt cleaning and conditioning and in product finishing. NPEs are also used in a wide range of consumer products, including cosmetics, cleaners and paints, and in a variety of applications.

NPEs and their degradation products (e.g., nonylphenol [NP]) are not produced naturally. Their presence in the environment is solely a consequence of anthropogenic activity. NP and NPEs enter the environment primarily via industrial effluents and municipal wastewater treatment plant (MWWTP) effluents (liquid and sludge), but also by direct discharge, although it is not known how significant the latter pathway is in Canada. Once NPEs are released to sewage treatment systems, several transformations can occur. The mechanism of degradation is complex, but, in general, there is an initial loss of ethoxylate (EO) groups from the original moiety. Under aerobic and anaerobic treatment conditions, biodegradation to more toxic (and estrogenic) metabolites occurs. These products are NP, nonylphenol ethoxylate (NP1EO), nonylphenol diethoxylate (NP2EO), nonylphenoxyacetic acid (NP1EC) and nonylphenoxyethoxyacetic acid (NP2EC).

NPEs can be biodegraded through a mechanism of stepwise loss of ethoxy groups to form lower ethoxylated congeners, carboxylated products and NP. The intermediate and final products of metabolism are more persistent than the parent NPEs, but these intermediates are expected to be ultimately biodegraded. In aquatic environments, primary biodegradation of NPEs is fast, but the resultant products, such as NP1EO, NP2EO, NP1EC, NP2EC and NP, are moderately persistent, especially under anaerobic conditions. Microbial acclimation to such chemicals is required for optimal degradation efficiencies. Photodegradation of such products is also expected to be important. Based on the limited data available, NP and the lower ethoxylates and carboxylates are persistent in groundwater. NP can be moderately persistent in sediments. It appears to be persistent in landfills under anaerobic conditions, but it does not appear to be persistent in soil under aerobic conditions.

NP and NPEs are present at low concentrations in ambient air, water, soil, sediments and biota. There are limited data on the occurrence of NP and NPEs, and their degradation products, in the Canadian environment. Additionally, there are very few data available for NP/NPEs in Canadian soils, including those that have had sludge additions. Nevertheless, in Canada, these chemicals have been found in fresh water, sediment, fish and beluga whale tissue, textile mill effluents, pulp and paper mill effluents, MWWTP influents, effluents and sludges, and soil to which municipal sludges had been applied.

There are a large number of studies reporting acute and chronic effects of NP in aquatic biota. There are, however, fewer studies reporting the toxicity of NPEs, and only a few studies that included the NPECs. Although studies described in the literature have used many species, different test methods and different chemicals, there is a consistent pattern in the toxicity reported. The range of acute toxicity for NP is similar for different organisms: for example, fish (17-1400 µg/L), invertebrates (20-3000 µg/L) and algae (27-2500 µg/L). Chronic toxicity values (No-Observed-Effect Concentrations, or NOECs) for NP are as low as 6 µg/L in fish and 3.9 µg/L in invertebrates. An acute to chronic toxicity ratio of 4:1 was determined based on the available literature.”

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See Regulatory Updates for more information on NPE dated November 9, 2017