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'No regulation' in India on use of deadly chemical in surfactants, consumer products

By Our Representative
A new study released by Toxics Link, ‘Dirty Trail: Detergent to Water Bodies’, has found alarming levels of the toxic chemical nonylphenol in detergents as well as in river waters in India. The detergent samples were taken from the local markets of Delhi and water from six rivers i.e. Garh Ganga and Hindon in Uttar Pradesh, Krishnan in Andhra Pradesh, Tapti in Gujarat, Bandi in Rajasthan, Mahanadi in Odisha and Ambazari lake in Nagpur.
Pointing towards the danger nonylphenol, the study states, it is “a xenobiotic and an endocrine disrupting chemical is used largely in the production of nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPE)”, which is “extensively used as a surfactant and in other industrial applications as well as in day to day consumer products.”
Noting that NPE “generally breaks down to nonylphenol in natural environmental conditions and enters into the ecosystem”, and also enters into “the food chain, where it bio-accumulates and can pose serious environmental and health risks”, the study says, “USA, the European Union and China have “acknowledged the menace of this chemical and have put restrictions on its use in various industrial processes and have shifted towards safer alternatives.”
While these countries phased out nonylphenol’s use from detergent in these countries long time ago, India has prohibited the use of nonylphenol in cosmetic products (2009), but there is “no regulation on its use in surfactants or other consumer products”, the study says, adding, “Further, there is no public information available on the possible impacts of the chemical and to minimize the risks associated with it.”
The study states, concerns have been raised about nonylphenol's potential to cause carcinogenic effects on the human body. It says, "Since the chemical has been classified as an endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC) and is found to be having a number of reproductive and hormonal effects on the exposed humans, it has been detected in human breast milk, blood, and urine and is associated with reproductive and developmental effects in rodents."
It says, "Studies have established the linkage of nonylphenol with cancer", adding, "It can enhance the progression of cancer. A study has concluded that the presence of nonylphenol induces the cells and increases the chances of colon cancer."Pointing out that the "World Health Organization in its risk assessment of nonylphenol."
The study, conducted by the Toxics Link – an Indian environmental research and advocacy organization engaged in disseminating information to “help strengthen” the campaign against toxics pollution, provide cleaner alternatives and bring together groups and people affected by this problem -- in association with the Department of Chemical Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Guwahati, has found existence of nonylphenol in all the samples of detergent, river and lake water.
“There has been no study conducted in India so far and it’s the first-of-its-kind report to bring the presence and toxicity impacts associated with nonylphenol into the public domain. There is an urgent need for developing stringent regulations to restrict the entry of NP into the environment and human body”, said Satish Sinha, associate director, Toxics Link.

Some key findings of the study are:

  • nonylphenol was found in very high quantity in all the detergent samples;
  • the concentration of nonylphenol was found in detergent samples ranging from 0.25 weight percent (wt%) to 11.92 wt%; 
  • nonylphenol was detected in notably high quantity in all the river samples; 
  • nonylphenol concentration was found to be 14.76 ppm in Garh Ganga; 
  • the highest level of nonylphenol was found in the water sample from the Bandi river in Rajasthan i.e. 41.27 part per million (ppm); and 
  • despite many corporations claiming that they don’t use nonylphenol, the study confirmed the presence of high quantity of the chemical in the products sold by their Indian subsidiaries. 
Nonylphenol is known to be an endocrine disrupting chemical which is hazardous to the environment and human health besides also posing a threat to aquatic life and other fauna, the study says. The chemical has also been found to have a number of adverse reproductive and hormonal effects on human beings and can cause carcinogenic effects on the human body.
Considering its harmful effects, nonylphenol has been highly regulated by many countries globally,
The United States, European Union and even China have phased out nonylphenol from detergent completely, it says. Further Denmark has completely banned the use of nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) in textile and leather industries and the EU has restricted the use of NPEs in products and product formulations to 0.01% in textile and other industries.
Efforts are being made to restrict the use of the chemical in drinking water. Canada has set the standard of nonylphenol at 1.0 microgram per liter (µg/L) in freshwater while the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established water quality criteria for nonylphenol at 6.6 µg/L for acute exposures and 1.7 µg/L for chronic exposures says the study.
“Despite nonylphenol being a toxic chemical it was found in very high concentration in all the detergents samples that were tested. It is also a matter of grave concern that high concentration of nonylphenol in river water samples can cause irreversible harm to aquatic organisms,” says Piyush Mohapatra, senior programme coordinator, Toxics Link.
The Bureau of Indian Statistics (BIS) has set the standard of phenolic compounds for drinking water (0.001 mg/L) and surface water (5.0 mg/L).However unlike other countries India does not have specific standards for nonylphenol in drinking water and surface water.
In the Toxics Link study the concentration of nonylphenol was found to be as much as eight times more than the prescribed BIS standard for phenolic compounds and over 100 times as compared to the US EPA safety standard for water quality criteria.
The study has proposed the following recommendations:
  • Banning the use of nonylphenol in all detergents;
  • Creating an inventory on the usage of nonylphenol in different sectors in the country; 
  • Introducing standards on nonylphenol in drinking water and in food to protect human health and the environment; and 
  • Initiating legal action against the companies for practicing double standards based on the polluter pay principle.
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Click HERE for the study report

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