EU surfactant assessment draws industry ire

US chemicals firms attack "philosophy" of European risk assessment on nonyl phenol ethoxylates

An EU risk assessment recommending marketing restrictions on a group of widely used industrial surfactants has drawn fire from the US chemicals industry, both for the way in which it was carried out and for the "precedent-setting, philosophical basis" of its approach.

Manufacturers fear the review of nonyl phenol ethoxylates (NPEs) could lead to the EU proposing bans on both these and many other chemicals unless the methodology underpinning it is challenged. NPEs are widely used as surface active agents in the industrial cleansing, textiles, leather and agricultural sectors.

Commissioned by the UK's environment ministry and one of the first risk assessments to be completed under the EU's programme for "existing" chemicals, the report highlights the potential for NPEs to have toxic effects on aquatic organisms.

NPEs degrade to nonyl phenol (NP) and other substances in the aquatic environment. NP is toxic and have endocrine disrupting properties. For this reason, the study recommends marketing and use restrictions, which it says would eliminate 70% of the environmental burden. NPEs could be substituted by less toxic and more biodegradable alcohol ethoxylates, it finds.

For some industry sectors, it advocates applying the EU's integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC) directive as a means of reducing emissions. However, it finds drawbacks to this approach, including the fact that only larger businesses are governed by the directive.

At one of the first in a series of international meetings to discuss risk management organised by the OECD in Geneva last week, US researchers criticised both the way the study was carried out and the resulting proposal for marketing restrictions, favouring reliance on IPPC controls instead.

"Product bans are inappropriate risk management measures in cases where effective methods of pollution prevention and control have been demonstrated," said Bob Fensterheim, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Alkylphenols and Ethoxylates Research Council (APERC). He maintained that a ban could lead to substitution with chemicals of unknown or potentially greater toxicity.

APERC claims the British study greatly overestimated the degradation of NPEs to the more toxic NP, and was flawed in using modelling rather than real-world data. It adds that controlling emissions through the IPPC directive would have the additional benefit of monitoring other chemicals released from a plant at the same time.

Follow Up:
APE Research Council, tel: +1 202 637 9071.

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