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Time to clean up our cleansers!

At Thursday’s hearing before the Board of Environmental Protection (BEP), I had the honor of speaking on behalf of parents who want to keep harmful chemicals out of kid’s products. I’m a proud mom of an eight-year-old girl, and love kids in general, so I was happy to speak up for protecting them from toxic harm.  I spoke to the board about the proposed designation of Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs) and Nonylphenols as a priority class of chemical to be phased out of children’s products in the state of Maine.

Even though I work for an environmental health non-profit, I didn’t know much about NPEs when the BEP proposed them as a priority class of chemical.  So, I set out to try and learn more.  I found out that NPEs are used in some detergents (as surfactants), in pesticides, in some food packaging, in personal care products and are even used in the spermicide Nonoxyl-9.  I learned that these chemicals are endocrine disruptors which can act as a synthetic estrogen in the body of my daughter.   I learned that this class of chemical has been linked to the feminization of fish. I learned that as early as 2005, the European Union classified Nonylphenols as a reproductive hazard. I also know that many large companies like SC Johnson have already voluntarily phased out NPEs from their products, and that safer, effective and affordable alternatives to NPEs are readily available.   Mostly, I learned that NPEs are the kinds of chemicals I definitely want to keep away from my little girl.

As part of my research, I contacted my daughter’s school to find out whether the cleansers used there contained NPEs.  I met with Mr. Neal Bangs, the Custodial Supervisor for the Portland Public Schools.  He was great.  He supplied me with MSDS for most of the products used in Portland schools.  While most of the products were what he called “green” and were NPE-free – there was at least one detergent that is still used in the school system which contains NPEs, and there were two which listed a non-specified “surfactant” and “non-ionic surfactant”  - either one of which could be NPE.

Mr. Bangs assured me that he tries to use non-toxic products whenever possible.  He uses mostly SC Johnson company products, and trusts that these are NPE free. I would like to stress that Mr. Bangs looks for “green” products because of his own concerns about the health and safety of children and workers in the schools – he, like just SC Johnson, is acting voluntarily.

So after learning what I could, this is what I told the BEP: There is still a lot that I don’t know.  I don’t know what other companies are doing with nonylphenols . I don’t know what choices Custodial Supervisors in other school districts in Maine are making about cleansers in their schools.  Are they using the safest possible products in order to protect our children’s health?  I don’t know.  As parents, we always want to know that our children are safe.  As long as nonylphenol phase-outs remain voluntary, we may never know for sure which products are safe.

If you want to send a message of support to the BEP for phasing out the “toxic detergent” NPE, you can send your comment c/o Andrea Lani at:


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Hey Nonny Nonny, a post by Colby College student Blair Braverman

One day, when I was in elementary school, a policeman came to my class to hand out stickers. Well, really to teach us how not to poison ourselves, but all we cared about were the stickers. They were red circles about the size of a quarter, with a skull and crossbones—just like a pirate’s flag! We stuck them on our foreheads and went out to play pirates-versus-landlubbers on the playground.
What I remember is that we were supposed to stick them on bottles of cleaning solution at our homes, the same bottles that my parents kept under the sink. It struck me, even then, how odd it was that something we used in our homes—used to clean our counters!—was toxic; surely a little dirt was preferable to poison. Oh, well. I wasn’t concerned about it. It was a lot less interesting than, say, dreaming up magical superpowers, at least one of which, I decided, probably made me impervious to poison. Let the grown-ups worry about it.
I’m a grown-up now—at least most of the way—and I am worried about it. Luckily, I’m not the only one. Right now, the State of Maine is deciding whether to declare nonylphenol, a chemical used in cleaning products and detergents, the newest priority chemical under the Kid-Safe Products Act. This chemical is something we use a lot of: In 2004, over 260 million pounds of nonylphenol were used, and more than 60% of our nation’s streams test positive for its presence. There’s a lot we don’t know about nonylphenol’s impact on the human body—very little research has been done—the information we do have is scary enough that the chemical has been banned in both Canada and the European Union.
Why? Nonylphenol, and the substances it breaks down into, are endocrine disruptors, which means that they can interfere with the ways our hormones work. They’ve been shown to cause damage to both male and female reproductive organs, as well as the liver and kidney, and can interfere with metabolism, development, and growth. Furthermore, studies have found that 95% of Americans carry detectable levels of nonylphenol in our bodies… maybe we kids were right to be putting “poison” stickers on our foreheads, after all.
I did some research to learn about the effects of nonylphenol on animals, too. I found that if oysters are exposed to a solution of 1 part per billion nonylphenol, an average of 17% of them become hermaphroditic. Furthermore, after only three months of exposure to low levels of nonylphenol, 85% of male Japanase medaka fish grew female sex organs. And what happens if humans are exposed, during childhood or over the course of their lifetime? We don’t know—but an EPA analysis found that much of the drinking water in the U.S. contains nonylphenol at a level of 1 part per billion. I don’t want to have to find out.
If nonylphenol is named a priority chemical, manufacturers will have to disclose it in their products, and the state will be able to require the use of safer alternatives. Because maybe Maine’s kids do have superpowers—but we shouldn’t bet their health on it.