Recycled Vinyl Can Reintroduce Chemical Hazards Into Building Products


“Today’s announcement by Home Depot that it will require manufacturers to phase out phthalate plasticizers from all of the vinyl flooring products it sells was the latest in a long history of efforts to eliminate hazardous additives from vinyl building products. But this does not mean that all phthalate-free vinyl floors (and other PVC products) are now free of potential concerns for building occupants.

Healthy Building Network (HBN) research found that recycled PVC used in building products usually contains legacy toxic hazards like lead, cadmium, and phthalates. (PVC is short for polyvinyl chloride, or “vinyl.”) We reveal this and more in our new report, Post-Consumer Polyvinyl Chloride in Building Products, published today.

HBN examined the supply chain for vinyl flooring. We discovered that post-consumer PVC used in flooring is more likely to come from insulation jackets stripped from old cables and wires than from discarded vinyl flooring.[1] These jackets typically contain high levels of heavy metals, problematic plasticizers, and even PCBs – substances that building product manufacturers have worked to eliminate from their consumer products in recent years.

While we tracked the recycled PVC supply chain, the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Ecology Center[2] tested scores of vinyl floors sold by retail stores. They shared their results with HBN and generously allowed us to debut their findings in this report.

The Ecology Center tests revealed content previously unknown to the public. Using an X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) device on 74 floors, the Ecology Center determined that each inner layer likely contained electrical and electronic PVC waste.[3] And the recycled PVC had surprisingly high levels of heavy metals. In at least 69% of the floors’ inner layers, lead was present above the concentrations allowed in children’s toys. The XRF tests detected as much as 2% cadmium and 1% lead. This is a lot of lead and cadmium.

As PVC products age, they can release heavy metals. In 1996, the Consumer Products Safety Commission found that surface lead levels of 1.23 percent in deteriorating PVC mini-blinds “were high enough to present a lead poisoning hazard to children 6 years of age and younger if they ingested small amounts of dust from the blinds over a short period of time. Some states have identified children with elevated blood lead levels attributable to vinyl mini-blinds.”[4]

Few PVC recycling operations, whether small-scale or industrial, screen their inputs for toxicants. A recycling consortium in Europe acknowledges that phthalates and heavy metals remain in the recycled PVC feedstocks that they currently produce, and that these substances are present above regulatory thresholds of concern.

Over the past year, HBN has been examining the supply chain of recycled feedstocks in conjunction with StopWaste, a public agency responsible for reducing the waste stream in Alameda County, CA, and with support from the San Francisco Department of the Environment. Our collaboration’s goal is to identify the best practices for optimizing recycled materials – to increase recycling rates while minimizing toxic content – that can be used in building products.[5]

Wes Sullens of StopWaste is optimistic about the future of recycling. “While HBN’s research has identified some serious problems with certain sources of recycled PVC, it also identifies opportunities to clean it up for use in building products,” he notes. “Manufacturers and suppliers have shown the ability to screen, eliminate or minimize problematic ingredients that can affect the quality of future recycled content feedstocks. I am excited by this convergence of interests, and its potential to create higher-value and healthier products.”

Watch our next newsletter for the good news about what PVC flooring manufacturers are doing to address these issues.

Funding for research on post-consumer PVC feedstock was provided by StopWaste and donors to the Healthy Building Network (HBN). An evaluative framework to optimize recycling developed by StopWaste, the San Francisco Department of the Environment, and HBN, guided our research. Today’s post-consumer recycled PVC evaluation is a prequel to a forthcoming white paper by this new collaboration. It will identify pathways to optimize the benefits of using post-consumer recycled feedstocks in building products sold in the Bay Area of California and beyond.”

vinyl flooring

Home Depot banning toxic phthalates in flooring


Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families has some GREAT news to share from their Mind the Store campaign! Home Depot, the world’s largest home improvement retailer, is banning added phthalates in their vinyl flooring! The Mind the Store campaign has been working with the retailer to develop this policy over the past year.

A report at HealthyStuff.org shows other retailers like Lowe’s, Lumber Liquidators, and Ace Hardware are still carrying flooring with these harmful chemicals. They found that 58% of vinyl flooring tested at top retailers contains these harmful chemicals, which have been linked to asthma and birth defects in baby boys.

What’s worse — phthalates don’t stay in flooring – they get into the air and dust we breathe in our homes, and then make their way into our bodies. While Home Depot is banning added phthalates in its flooring products, when Lowe’s, the US’ second largest home improvement retailer, was asked whether it had a policy on phthalates it responded that it did not. If Home Depot can ban phthalates in flooring, so should Lowe’s!

TAKE ACTION: Tell Lowe’s to eliminate toxic phthalates in flooring.

Today is a day to celebrate, to thank Home Depot for the bold steps they have taken, and challenge Lowe’s and other home improvement retailers to join Home Depot in getting toxic phthalates out of flooring. Will you join us?

Act Now!


The phthalate DEHP undermines female fertility in mice


Two studies in mice add to the evidence that the phthalate DEHP, a plasticizing agent used in auto upholstery, baby toys, building materials and many other consumer products, can undermine female reproductive health, in part by disrupting the growth and function of the ovaries.

In the first study, reported in the journal Reproductive Toxicology, researchers found that exposing pregnant mice to DEHP increased the male-to-female sex ratio of their pups. Reproductive outcomes for the pups also were altered. About one in four of those exposed to DEHP in the womb took longer to become pregnant and/or lost some of their own pups.

The second study, reported in the journal Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, revealed that DEHP disrupts the growth and function of in the adult ovary. Exposure to DEHP increased the production of proteins that inhibit growth and promote degradation of the follicles, and decreased the production of steroid hormones, the researchers found.

“The follicles are the structures that contain the egg, and if you’re killing those, you may have fertility issues,” said University of Illinois comparative biosciences professor Jodi Flaws, who led both studies. “The bottom line is that DEHP may damage the follicles and impair the ability of the ovary to make sex steroids like estrogens and androgens, which are really important for reproduction.”

Most of the research conducted so far on the reproductive effects of phthalates has focused on males, “because phthalates are thought to interfere with the androgen system,” Flaws said.

“Studies that were done on females historically used very high doses of chemicals that aren’t environmentally relevant,” she said. “So our work has been to focus on the female and on environmentally relevant doses that people might see, either in the environment or occupationally or medically.”

It is important to evaluate lower phthalate doses because they reflect real-world exposures, and also because low doses of endocrine-disrupting chemicals like phthalates can have more serious consequences than high doses, Flaws said.

“Sometimes it’s at the low doses that you have the most profound effects, and that’s what we’re seeing with the ,” she said.

These studies are among several initiatives of the Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Center at the U. of I., which is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Explore further: BPA exposure affects fertility in next three generations of mice

More information: Reproductive Toxicology Volume 53, June 2015, Pages 23–32. DOI: 10.1016/j.reprotox.2015.02.013
Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology Volume 284, Issue 1, 1 April 2015, Pages 42–53 DOI: 10.1016/j.taap.2015.02.010


Scientists warn of hormone impacts from benzene, xylene, other common solvents


Researchers warn that benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene may disrupt people’s hormone systems at levels deemed “safe” by feds

April 15, 2015

By Brian Bienkowski
Environmental Health News

Four chemicals present both inside and outside homes might disrupt our endocrine systems at levels considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to an analysis released today.

The chemicals – benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene – are ubiquitous: in the air outside and in many products inside homes and businesses. They have been linked to reproductive, respiratory and heart problems, as well as smaller babies. Now researchers from The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) and the University of Colorado, Boulder, say that such health impacts may be due to the chemicals’ ability to interfere with people’s hormones at low exposure levels.

TEDx MidAtlantic
Theo Colborn, who passed away last December, was a co author on the new study.

“There’s evidence of connection between the low level, everyday exposures and things like asthma, reduced fetal growth,” said Ashley Bolden, a research associate at TEDX and lead author of the study. “And for a lot of the health effects found, we think it’s disrupted endocrine-signaling pathways involved in these outcomes.”

Bolden and colleagues – including scientist, activist, author and TEDX founder Theo Colborn who passed away last December – pored over more than 40 studies on the health impacts of low exposure to the chemicals.

“Hormones are how the body communicates with itself. Interrupt that, you can expect all sorts of negative health outcomes.”-Susan Nagel, University of Missouri-Columbia(Colborn also co-authored “Our Stolen Future” along with Dianne Dumanoski and Pete Myers, founder of Environmental Health News and chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences.)

They looked at exposures lower than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s reference concentrations for the chemicals, which is the agency’s estimated inhalation exposure level that is not likely to cause health impacts during a person’s lifetime.

Many of the health problems – asthma, low birth weights, cardiovascular, disease, preterm births, abnormal sperm – can be rooted in early disruptions to the developing endocrine system, Bolden said.

The analysis doesn’t prove that exposure to low levels of the chemicals disrupt hormones. However, any potential problems with developing hormone systems are cause for concern.

“Hormones are how the body communicates with itself to get work done. Interrupt that, you can expect all sorts of negative health outcomes,” said Susan Nagel an associate professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health School of Medicine who was not involved in the study.

Cathy Milbourn, a spokesperson for the EPA, said in an emailed response that the agency will “review the study and incorporate the findings into our work as appropriate.”

The “EPA is screening thousands of chemicals for potential risk of endocrine disruption,” she said. “As potential risk of endocrine disruption is identified, these chemicals are assessed further.”

The four chemicals are retrieved from the wellheads during crude oil and natural gas extraction and, after refining, are used as gasoline additives and in a wide variety of consumer products such as adhesives, detergents, degreasers, dyes, pesticides, polishes and solvents.

Ethylbenzene is one of the top ten chemicals used in children’s products such as toys and playground equipment, according to a 2013 EPA report. Toluene is in the top ten chemicals used in consumer products such as fuels and paints, the report found.

All four get into indoor and outdoor air via fossil fuel burning, vehicle emissions and by volatizing from products. Bolden said studies that measure the air in and around homes and businesses find the chemicals 90 to 95 percent of the time.

Katie Brown, spokeswoman for Energy in Depth, a program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said in an email that the study suggests “products deemed safe by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission are more dangerous than oil and gas development.

Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene are added to gasoline and emitted to the air during combustion.

“Contrary to their intentions, what this report actually shows is that people should be no more afraid of oil and gas development than products in their home,” she said.

The Consumer Specialty Products Association, a trade group that represents companies that manufacturer consumer goods including cleaning products, pesticides, polishes, would not comment on the study but a spokesperson said that member groups typically don’t use the chemicals mentioned.

In several of the monitoring studies Bolden and colleagues examined, levels of the chemicals were higher in indoor air than in outdoor air, suggesting that people might be exposed within their homes.

“A lot of time indoor air is poorly circulated,” Bolden said.

Nagel cited a “huge need” to look at the impact of exposure to ambient levels of these chemicals. The study highlights “a whole lot we don’t know” about how these compounds may impact humans, she said.

Using human tissue cells, Nagel’s lab has previously shown that the chemicals can disrupt the androgen and estrogen hormones.

The authors said regulators should give air contaminants the same attention they’ve given greenhouse gas emissions recently.

“Tremendous efforts have led to the development of successful regulations focused on controlling greenhouse gases in an attempt to reduce global temperatures,” the authors wrote in the study published today in Environmental Science and Technology journal.

“Similar efforts need to be directed toward compounds that cause poor air quality both indoors and outdoors.”

EHN welcomes republication of our stories, but we require that publications include the author’s name and Environmental Health News at the top of the piece, along with a link back to EHN’s version.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

scale justice

Court Deems Lumber Liquidators’ Case a “SLAPP” Suit


Court Throws Out Lumber Liquidators’ Lawsuit Against Environmental Group

Orders Flooring Giant to Pay Attorneys’ Fees and Costs

Yesterday a California environmental advocacy group won a resounding Court judgment against flooring giant Lumber Liquidators’ claims of defamation. In a 21-page decision, a judge ruled that Lumber Liquidators’ lawsuit against Global Community Monitor (GCM) was a strategic lawsuit against public participation and a clear violation of California’s anti-SLAPP law.

The court battle stemmed from a Proposition 65 lawsuit GCM filed last year against the company for high levels of cancer-causing formaldehyde found in Chinese-made laminate flooring sold by the company. Lumber Liquidators responded with a defamation suit, which was struck down yesterday.

“Lumber Liquidators tried to silence us and the court saw through it,” stated Denny Larson, Executive Director of Global Community Monitor. “The court recognized that we have a constitutional right to free speech. The public likewise has a right to know if any product they buy may be harmful to their families’ health.”

California’s anti-SLAPP statute provides for the “early dismissal of unmeritorious claims filed to interfere with the valid exercise of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and petition for the redress of grievances.” As Judge Carvill noted in his decision, “The anti-SLAPP statute is ‘construed broadly’ to achieve its goal of ensuring that ‘participation in matters of public significance’ is not ‘chilled through abuse of the judicial process.’” The judge goes on to conclude that Lumber Liquidators did not present sufficient evidence to show that its defamation-based claims against GCM “have any likelihood of success.”

In addition, the Court found that GCM is entitled to recover attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in defending the meritless SLAPP suit. GCM’s attorney, Richard Drury of Lozeau Drury LLP stated, “This is a good day for free speech and for the consumers of the State of California who are concerned that Chinese-made laminate flooring sold by Lumber Liquidators contains cancer-causing formaldehyde far above levels allowed by law.”

Boy (2-4) looking at cookie jar while eating chocolate chip cookie

Endocrine disruptors in our food


Would you eat something that some cosmetics companies won’t put in their products? You might be.

A new EWG analysis has found propyl paraben, a preservative linked to endocrine disruption and not allowed in food sold in the European Union, in nearly 50 U.S. snack foods, including Sara Lee cinnamon rolls, Weight Watchers cakes, Cafe Valley muffins, and La Banderita corn tortillas.

Some cosmetics companies have removed propyl paraben from their formulations, so why aren’t food companies doing the same?! It’s time to stand up for the health of allconsumers.

Click here to sign EWG’s petition: Tell Sara Lee, Weight Watchers and other food companies to stop using the endocrine-disrupting preservative propyl paraben in their food NOW!


What is propyl paraben? This endocrine-disrupting chemical has been shown to decrease sperm counts and testosterone in animals and has been reported to accelerate the growth of breast cancer cells. It can even alter the expression of genes!

Despite this and other mounting evidence that propyl paraben disrupts the endocrine system, the federal Food and Drug Administration has allowed it to be labeled “Generally Recognized As Safe” and has not taken action to eliminate its use in food or reassess its safety in light of recent science.

Consumers can’t wait for the FDA to act – endocrine disruptors shouldn’t be in the food we eat!

Click here to stand with EWG and demand that food companies remove propyl paraben from their products immediately.

Gibbs Ohio

Board of Directors Announce Lois Gibbs Shifting Energy To Field


The Board of Directors of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ) is pleased to s, our founder and Executive Director, has accepted the opportunity to shift the focus of her work to our newly created Leadership Training Academy program.

To maintain our momentum in supporting community-based environmental health and justice work, we have begun the formal search for the next grassroots leader with excellent training and management skills and a vision of powerful action – our successor Executive Director. To support the Board in the search process, CHEJ has engaged Democracy Partners. Our process of outreach and selection begins very soon. Questions or suggestions should be directed to Cheri Whiteman by e-mail at cheriwhiteman@democracypartners.com.

Lois Gibbs will shift her full-time attention away from her current day-to-day administrative responsibilities with the engagement of our next Executive Director, which is expected to occur this summer. “I’m excited to spend more time in the field to build the advocacy base for change!” said Lois, “and it’s a great opportunity for one of the emerging community leaders out there to take CHEJ to the next level!”

CHEJ has launched the Leadership Training Academy program to strengthen and sustain the infrastructure of fledgling environmental health and justice organizations in the United States.

CHEJ recently completed a strategic review and refocus of our work. We were aided as a Board in this process by a group of allies and advisors, and our retreat was facilitated by Jim Abernathy. In examining our work, the following important findings led CHEJ’s Board to take those steps to reshape the organization to meet the increasing demand from the field for Leadership Training Academy program services:

• There are more local, state and regional groups emerging than in the past. This is due primarily to energy-related proposals and activities such as pipelines, extraction wells, export terminals and associated waste disposal.

• Established groups are growing and looking for advice on long-term organizing, establishing collaborative efforts, Board development and establishing a three-year strategic organizational plan.

Lois describes the Academy program this way: “The Leadership Training Academy is a training center ‘without walls.’ It provides a distinctive brand of leadership skills-building training and mentoring of local group leaders around the country to build the base of the environmental health and justice movement. This program is based on a proven, time-tested methodological framework that is grounded in CHEJ’s 34 years of grassroots leadership and coaching experience, campaign strategy knowledge and the tactics of successful grassroots victories. A special focus of the training activities is with thousands of women leading grassroots groups on a range of environmental health and economic justice issues. People of color, young people and women together comprise what many call the ‘emerging American electorate,’ and it is they who will both determine environmental and economic policy, and live with the consequences of the decisions.”

I personally am excited to “free Lois” to spend more of her energy in the field, and the Board of Directors looks forward to working with new leadership. We’ve always known that success comes when we learn from the past and step boldly into the future. With a new CHEJ Executive Director and our legendary friend and teacher, Lois Gibbs, we will have the best of both worlds!

Thank you,

Peter B. Sessa
CHEJ Board Chair

Is your child’s school toxic?


New test results posted by the Santa Monica-Malibu school district (SMMUSD) show nine classrooms and other facilities containing toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in concentrations up to 11,000 times above federal safety limits. The revelation came a day after America Unites for Kids and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) sued the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District for violating the federal Toxic Substances Control Act involving excessive levels of PCBs in school buildings.

The new test results prepared by the district’s own consultant showed PCB levels ranging from 330 parts-per-million to 570,000 ppm, meaning that over 50% of the caulk sample was pure PCB, a cancer-causing, banned chemical. By contrast, the federal safety limit is just 50 ppm. Despite these extremely high levels of a highly toxic chemical banned by Congress, all of these rooms are still in use by students and teachers of the combined elementary, middle and high schools. Elementary school special needs students are in a classroom tested at 470,000 ppm.

CHEJ has a program that can help you to identify if your school is a problem and how to get something done. If your school was built before 1980 it is more likely, than newer schools, to have PCB’s in lighting and caulk.  Check out our project materials at CHEJ’s PCBs in Schools webpage.  This is a win-win the school can remove the PCB’s in light fixtures which are also a problem and charge the school district the difference in their electric bill (since the new fixtures are energy efficient) until the costs are paid off.

Read more about a Los Angeles school district’s own tests show shocking pcb levels.


Hormone-mimickers widespread in Great Lakes region wastewater, waterways and fish


By Brian Bienkowski
Environmental Health News

Larry Barber spent ten years testing water and fish in the Great Lakes region. But he wasn’t looking for the pollutants everyone’s heard of.

A sewer rehabilitation project in Buena Vista, Michigan. Even modern water treatment and sewerage systems cannot stop all alkyphenolic compounds.

Mercury … PCBs … these are still problems. But there’s a lesser-known class of contaminants, which have insidious and concerning health impacts on aquatic creatures.

Barber, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, was looking for, and found, hormone-disrupting compounds – called alkylphenols – making it through wastewater treatment plants andcontaminating rivers and fish in the Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi River regions.

The compounds pervade the Great Lakes basin waterways that receive wastewater treatment plant effluent.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a large urban wastewater plant, a mid-size city wastewater plant or individual septic tanks,” Barber said. “These chemicals are present.”

Wastewater treatment plants were not originally designed to handle these compounds, widely used both commercially and residentially in products such as detergents, cleaning products and adhesives. Operators are scrambling to keep up with the hormone-mimickers gushing into their plants.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a large urban wastewater plant, a mid-size city wastewater plant or individual septic tanks. These chemicals are present.”-Larry Barber, USGSMeanwhile, scientists fear the biologically active contaminants and their metabolites may alter the hormones of fish and other aquatic creatures, leading to reproductive, behavioral and developmental problems.

“In terms of effects, these alkylphenols are just one subset of compounds that add up to produce adverse effects,” said Alan Vajda, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Colorado. “A little alkylphenol, a little estrogenic birth control … they all add up.”

Nearly ubiquitous

From 1999 to 2009 Barber and colleagues looked for nine compounds and their metabolites, many of which are known to disrupt the endocrine system, in the effluent from wastewater treatment plants in Duluth and St. Paul, Minnesota, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis and Akron, Ohio. They found all nine compounds in every plant’s effluent.

Over the study timeframe the amount discharged was fairly constant, Barber said.

US Army Corps of Engineers
Aerial view of Stickney Wastewater Treatment Plant, operated by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, Cicero, Illinois.

This isn’t the first time researchers have found the compounds in the Great Lakes. In 2007 Environment Canada reported that the compounds were in sediment of a Great Lakes coastal wetland in Ontario and were accumulating in the tissue of local invertebrates.

Another Canadian study from 2009 tested 28 sites in lakes Erie, Huron and Ontario, and found alkylphenols distributed widely in sediments in the lower Great Lakes, with concentrations higher in sediments near larger cities.

Alkyphenols are “nearly ubiquitous,” Vajda said. “There are so many sources of these compounds in consumer products and in industrial uses and agriculture.”

It’s not always the parent compound that researchers are looking for. The compounds are partially broken down when they go through wastewater treatment plants.

However, they break down into metabolites that persist and still exhibit endocrine disrupting properties.

“They go down the drain, through the sewers, through the wastewater treatment plant, back into stream, and many are converted into more biologically active forms than what they started as,” Barber said.

Estrogenic impacts to fish

Alkyphenols disrupt endocrine systems, acting estrogenic in fish, birds and mammals.

Estrogenic compounds act through the estrogen receptor – and the common health impact people think of is reproduction, Vajda said. “But the roles much more diverse than that – estrogens are important to the brain, metabolism, cardiovascular health,” he said.

Barber and colleagues tested some fish in the Great Lakes region for indications of endocrine disruption. They found that a protein – called plasma vitellogenin, which is predominantly in female fish – was mostly reduced in female fish and present in males.

Larry Barber, USGS

Responses from both sexes are indicative of endocrine disruption, Barber said.

“A lot of endocrine disruption is creating imbalances in these biological feedback systems. After exposure, females’ machinery will kind of shut down since it’s estrogen driven,” Barber said. “Male fish exposed to estrogen will produce this protein in their blood.”

When asked to comment on Barber’s findings, Tara Johnson, a spokesperson with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said via email: “None of the actual results are particularly remarkable or unexpected based on past studies of this type with alkylphenols.”

Scientists have linked alkyphenols to a number of health impacts in fish.

Most of the research has been from laboratory studies, said Reynaldo Patiño, a USGS scientist and leader of the Texas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.

“Studies suggest behavior problems, impaired reproduction, development of immune system, disease resistance,” Patiño said. “These are all important functions.”

For example, Barber, Vajda and colleagues in 2010 found that minnows exposed to hormone- and alkylphenol-contaminated wastewater effluent from Boulder, Colorado, were demasculinized within 14 days.

During the research period, Boulder water officials took steps to limit alkyphenols prompting a “dramatic decrease in the compounds showing up in effluent,” Vajda said.

“In terms of effects, these alkylphenols are just one subset of compounds that add up to produce adverse effects. A little alkylphenol, a little estrogenic birth control … they all add up.”-Alan Vajda, University of Colorado“And with it, we saw a dramatic decrease in health impacts in fish,” he said, adding that this relationship suggested the alkyphenols were largely to blame for initial demasculinization.

Michigan researchers found that crayfish had severe developmental problems when exposed and concluded that the compounds pose a “serious risk to future crayfish populations and consequently food webs.”

In trout, four common alkylphenols stimulate gene expression and the growth of breast cancer cell lines, according to research from the UK’s Imperial Cancer Research Fund.

Vajda said that all of these studies are relevant for the Great Lakes fish since endocrine disrupting compounds should act similarly across fish species. He added it’s hard to pin any specific health impacts on any group of compounds since fish are exposed to a mixture of so many.

The ultimate concern is that compounds could affect fish populations. This, too, would be quite difficult to pin down, Patiño said, but it’s not a stretch to think there could be population level impacts.

“Wastewater effluent impacts individual fish. It’s not unreasonable to think if individuals are affected, including these reproductive endpoints, to expand that and project that populations are likely to be affected,” Patiño said.

Rona Proudfoot/flickr
Alkyphenol-contaminated fish and water are potential sources of estrogens for people.

All exposures count

It’s difficult to quantify the risk alkyphenolic-contaminated fish are to humans, said Dr. Ana Soto, a Tufts University professor and biologist, adding that what and how many fish eaten would determine exposure.

However, both contaminated fish and water represent yet another route of estrogen exposure for people.

“We’re already affected by estrogens like BPA, and we know the effects are additive,” Soto said. “In a nutshell, I can’t tell you how much endocrine disruption [in people] will increase from eating the fish in the river. But I can say there is potential, and all exposures count.”

“And we already have estrogens, now there are potentially more provided to the body from the water … and fish.”

Stopping them at the source

Alkylphenols are widespread in wastewater effluent because wastewater treatment plants simply were not designed to handle such compounds.

“The basic concept of plants was conceptualized 70 or 80 years ago when someone said ‘hey could we take natural biodegradation process in the environment, and speed it up,” said Chris Hornback, senior director of regulatory affairs with the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA).

“These plants were designed to get the stuff when you think of sewage out of water, get it cleaned and return it to environment, “ he said. “Nothing in the realm of our imagination when these processes were first conceptualized envisioned triclosan, estrogen from birth control pills, or alkyphenolics.”

There is some research into bolstering removal rates of such compounds. Hornback said that reverse osmosis, which cleans water by pushing it through membranes, seems to work best at removing emerging contaminants like alkyphenols. However, reverse osmosis is prohibitively expensive for most plants.

Other researchers have had some success at slowing down the sludge retention time, which keeps the wastewater in the portion of the treatment process where organisms are consuming organic matter. A longer holding period seems to remove more contaminants such as alkyphenols. But that’s not without problems either, Hornback said.

Brian Bienkowski
Experts say if compounds have environmental impacts, they shouldn’t go into sewers in the first place.

“Slowing everything down really impacts the overall treatment process, and changes how much capacity you can put through. There isn’t a treatment technology you can slap on and say ‘remove contaminant X or Y,” he said.

Another option to bolster removal is activated carbon filters, said Larry Rogacki, district general manager of support services at Minnesota’s Metropolitan Council Environmental Services, which operates the wastewater treatment plants for the St. Paul, Minneapolis region.

But it, too, would be “extremely expensive,” Rogacki said. “We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars.” Rather than make such an investment, Rogacki said it makes much more sense to keep these compounds out of the sanitary system in the first place.

“If alkyphenolic compounds are causing problems in the environment, we should be working to keep them out of the sewer,” Hornback said. “The sewer is not a trash can.”

“If alkyphenolic compounds are causing problems in the environment, we should be working to keep them out of the sewer.”-Chris Hornback, NACWA

City officials at Boulder, Colorado, for example, worked with Barber and others to monitor local waterways for alkyphenols and then reach out to industries near high concentrations to educate them about potential impacts and alternative options.

Hornback said the major concern is that the EPA approves compounds and then, after environmental impacts are confirmed, will force wastewater treatments plants to deal with them

The EPA’s Johnson said the agency does not have any human or aquatic water quality standards for any of the chemicals that Barber and colleagues monitored.

Nor are there “imminent plans to develop” any standards, she added.

But voluntary reductions in chemicals can reduce their presence in the environment, Barber said.

“It’s good to get the word out. If people realize ‘Oh, I’m using products that are having an unsavory environmental impact’, and realize they have alternatives, they’ll usually turn to the alternatives.”

EHN welcomes republication of our stories, but we require that publications include the author’s name and Environmental Health News at the top of the piece, along with a link back to EHN’s version.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Toys from the Seventies and Eighties could be poisoning your children


Nostalgia can be dangerous! Before passing on old toys to your children, consider new research that has found contaminants like arsenic, lead and cadmium in plastic toys from decades ago.

Read More.