Alarm over gender-bending chemical
2007-06-09 0:00

By Delthia Ricks |

The Human Endocrine System. Images from:

An unusual mix of public health advocates, environmentalists and laundry workers joined yesterday in a petition demanding that federal authorities ban a chemical additive found in some household detergents and other cleaning agents.

The petition, which was submitted to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, also called for studies of human risks related to the dirt-lifting agents called nonylphenol ethoxylates, or NPEs.

Studies have shown NPEs to be potent gender-benders, believed to be responsible for transforming male fish into females in waterways worldwide. Marine scientists at Stony Brook University say NPEs are the likely culprit in the decline of male winter flounder in Jamaica Bay.

The groups calling for a ban of NPEs say the transformed fish may be "the proverbial canaries in the coal mine," and that human safety issues have yet to be uncovered.

The EPA had no comment on the petition yesterday. European and Canadian regulators have banned NPEs in domestic laundry detergents and other cleaning agents. Petitioners, including the Sierra Club, want the EPA to require appropriate labeling of products with NPEs and to eventually ban their use in consumer products.

Nearly 400 million pounds of NPEs are manufactured in the United States annually, petitioners wrote.

"Nonylphenol ethoxylates are in the larger class of chemicals we refer to as endocrine disrupters. That's the concern," said Dr. Michael McCally, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians for Social Responsibility, a public health advocacy organization, and one of the petition's signers.

"NPEs ... affect gene expression by turning on or off certain genes," McCally said.

As a class, endocrine disrupters are known for mimicking the female hormone estrogen, the reason some marine species have become females.

McCally, a clinical professor of preventive medicine at The Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, theorizes that medical conditions that are far more insidious, requiring decades to manifest, could be caused by endocrine disrupters.

Corporations such as Procter & Gamble removed NPEs from their products more than a decade ago.

Eric Frumin, health and safety representative for United Here in Manhattan, a union that represents about 100,000 laundry workers in North America [CORRECTION: Unite Here is a North American laundry workers union. The name of the union was incorrect in a story yesterday. PG. A17 NS, A19 C 6/7/07], is calling for safety studies involving NPEs. United Here signed the petition submitted to the EPA.

Frumin voiced concern for laundry workers at a Cintas laundry facility in Central Islip where he said hundreds of uniforms and other garments are laundered. Cintas Corp. has switched to non-NPE detergents at its Connecticut facility, Frumin said.

Wade Gates, spokesman at Cintas headquarters in Cincinnati, said the company's Connecticut facility is the only one nationally where the detergent has been changed because of state regulations.

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