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U.S. urged to ban chemical tied 'intersex' fish

/ Source: The Associated Press

An environmental group asked the federal government Tuesday to ban the use of certain toxic chemical compounds in industrial and household detergents because the ingredients are believed to cause male fish to develop female characteristics.

The Sierra Club also asked the Environmental Protection Agency to bar the use of these products in areas where wastewater treatment plants aren't equipped to remove nonylphenol ethoxylates, or NPEs.

The compounds, which are derived from petroleum, are used mainly in detergents but also in paper manufacturing and flame retardants. The Sierra Club, along with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations and the textile-and-hotel-workers union UNITE HERE, also seeks to require labeling on all products containing NPEs.

Scientists have documented so-called intersex fish in U.S. waters in the last decade, including the southern Great Lakes, the Potomac River watershed and the Southern California coast. The reasons for the problem aren't fully known, but researchers suspect it is rooted in wastewater and farm runoff polluted with chemicals that are estrogenic, meaning they stimulate estrogen production. NPEs are one of them.

NPEs are more tightly restricted in Canada and Europe than in the United States, which issued water-quality limits for the key ingredient, nonylphenol, or NP, in December 2005. Detergent manufacturers Procter & Gamble and Unilever have voluntarily substituted other chemicals in their products, and Wal-Mart is seeking to phase NPEs out of its stores by rewarding companies that find alternatives.

"We think it's time for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take action and restrict this chemical," said Ed Hopkins, director of the Sierra Club's environmental quality program.

The agency has 90 days to deny the petition or grant it and begin developing a rule, spokeswoman Enesta Jones said. The EPA is developing a program, the Safer Detergents Stewardship Initiative, that would recognize companies that voluntarily commit to use safer substitutes for NPEs.

Besides the restrictions on NPEs, the groups want more study of the compound, including testing for health effects on industrial laundry workers.

The Alkylphenols & Ethoxylates Research Council, a Washington-based trade group for major producers of nonylphenol and NPEs, said the compounds have been thoroughly reviewed.

"NP, NPE and their biodegradation intermediates are among the most extensively studied compounds in commerce today," Robert Fensterheim, the trade group's executive director, said in an e-mailed response to questions from The Associated Press. "Few compounds have the same degree of test data and have received the same degree of scrutiny."

But Hopkins said the EPA didn't consider certain effects on fish when it set water-quality limits.

"They set criteria based on conventional toxicity tests," Hopkins said. "But those criteria don't take into account the fact that NP and NPEs affect fish more subtly at far lower levels."

The petition also is signed by the Environmental Law & Policy Center, the Washington Toxics Coalition and Physicians for Social Responsibility.