There's a good chance you're cleaning your hair with an APE—an AlkylPhenol Ethoxylate—and it may not be as biodegradable as you think it is.
We all try to be careful about pouring hazardous waste down sinks, toilets and storm drains. But we may not be quite as vigilant about the contents of our bath or shower water.
Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) are chemicals found in many industrial and consumer products. Most often they are used as surfactants (surface active agents, better known as detergents), in everything from hair dyes to pesticides. Some are also used in contraceptive products.
Surfactants are synthetic chemicals which can cut through grease. They are the key ingredient in almost all water-based cleaners. Surfactants are usually fairly large molecules; the water-soluble end of an APE is called the ethoxylate chain. The oil-soluble end is called the alkyl chain and is made up of a string of carbon atoms. If there are nine carbons, the structure is called nonyl, and the compound is a nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE).
Personal care products containing APEs in the USA
Shampoos: Infusion 23 Shampoo, Jhirmack Silver Brightening Shampoo, Salon Selectives Botanical Blends (Citrus Peach), Salon Selectives Level 6 (extra body), Salon Selectives Level 7 (deep).
Conditioners: 3 in 1 Detangler Plus, Finesse Frizz Free, Hydravive Deep Hydrating Masque, Papaya Pro Vita Conditioning Potion, Salon Selectives Conditioner Type F, Salon Selectives Type M, Salon Style Conditioner Detangling with Balsam and Biotin, Salon Style Conditioner Moisture Potion.
Styling aids: 3 in 1 Maximum Hold Mousse, Finesse Styling Gel, Herbal Essence Spray Gel, Infusion 23 Fortifying Mousse, Infusion 23 Fortifying Spray Gel, Infusion 23 Leave-in Treatment, Jhirmack Bodifying Mousse, Jhirmack Conditioning Mousse, Jhirmack Sculpting Gel, Salon Selectives Spray Gel 15, Salon Selectives Styling Gel 10.
Contraceptives/lubricants: Advantage 24, Conceptrol, Delfen, Emko, Encare, Gynol, Koromex/Koromex II, KY Plus.
Other personal care products: Gillette Foamy Shaving Cream (Sensitive Skin), Liquid Ivory Soap.
Surfactants are bad for fish and other aquatic life. As they are used in products which are quickly poured away, it is important that they biodegrade before they reach lakes, streams or oceans. However, as is the case with APEs, some ingredients break down very slowly or form other compounds which do not break down at all.
For example, a typical NPE breaks down by shedding the water-soluble ethoxylate end of its chain to form nonylphenol, a compound which stays in the environment much longer than the original and is more toxic to fish.
It has recently been discovered that nonylphenol and octylphenol affect the endocrine system of birds, fish and mammals, including humans. The endocrine system consists of a variety of glands which secrete hormones such as testosterone, estrogen and adrenaline. Researchers have found that octylphenol and octylphenol ethoxylate caused decreases in testicular size and sperm production in male rats. These results are worrisome, because they show effects of alkylphenols on target cells in mammals, raising the concern of possible human health effects.
More than 80 percent of APEs used are NPEs, widely utilized in household and institutional cleaning products for over 40 years.
A major reason for using APEs is their low cost. APEs are very effective and inexpensive compared to other surfactants, which is why they are often used in generic and private label products. Alternatives exist for virtually every use of APEs. Many alternatives have already been screened and to date only alkyl phenols have shown estrogenic activity.
Identifying APEs in personal care products is relatively easy as these products have all ingredients listed on their label. The lists of ingredients are often long and contain tongue-twisting names, but it is possible to scan them for APEs, most commonly referred to as octoxynol or nonoxynol.
Household cleaning products seldom list all ingredients. Surfactants are often identified by generic terms such as "nonionic surfactant" or "cleaning agent." Ask manufacturers if their products contain alkylphenol ethoxylates.
* Excerpted from Alternatives, published by Washington Toxics Coalition. Contact WTC at (206)632-1545 or email@example.com; or Georgia Strait Alliance, toxics campaign office, at (604)251-4953 or firstname.lastname@example.org
[From WS December 1998/January 1999]