The Tempest in a Cleaning Bottle

The Tempest in a Cleaning Bottle:
The debate continues over the safety of cleaning products used in schools

This article was written in 1999 for the national publication of the Allergy and Environmental Health Association. We include it on this website because much of the information and struggle are still relevant.

October, 1999

The “tempest in a cleaning bottle” at the ________ School Board is still bubbling. School custodians, administrators and parents are looking for reassurance that the all purpose cleaner chosen for use in the School Board is safe. As the NSAEHA (Nova Scotia Allergy and Environmental Health Association) Update reported in its last issue, the all-purpose cleaner, B_____ Blue, chosen for school use this year contains APEs (alkylphenol ethoxylates). APEs have been used as surfactants (dirt-lifting ingredients) in many cleaning products since the 1940’s. In recent years, APEs and their breakdown products have been shown to be persistent pollutants which result in aquatic toxicity and estrogen mimicking, so governments and manufacturers have been taking action to remove APEs from use.

Custodians are running out of the current product. Some are reluctant to start using the new one. While some have been told they have no choice but to use the new product, and that they have been assured this product is safe, some _____ Region schools are requesting to continue using a less toxic alternative. It is unclear at this point whether those requests are being honoured.

Debate continues over whether APEs are safe. In late June, B______ International, the manufacturer of the controversial product, provided information to board staff asserting that APE’s are safe for use. The information claimed that an article in the Halifax Daily News (Tuesday, June 15, 1999) which stated that APEs are banned in Europe is not accurate, that the product in question does not contain an NPE, that hormone disruptors do not produce birth defects, and that studies indicate that alkylphenol ethoxylates do not have hormonal effects. They also provided a list of users of their products which included two other Nova Scotian school boards.

Alkyl Phenyl Polyethoxy Alcohol, listed on the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) of B_____ Blue, is an APE. It is not an NPE (Nonyl Phenyl, nine carbon chained molecule), as the letter from the manufacturers states, but that is neither here nor there. It is still an APE. APE is a general classification. OPE (Octyl Phenyl, eight carbon chained molecule) and NPE are subclasses of APEs. According to communications from DiverseyLever, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of cleaning products, “All have the same type of molecules, and all have the same type of action, although there is some variance, and all have the same potential to harm.”

B_____ International’s information is technically accurate, yet misleading once you know the details. It tells what the product doesn’t contain, not what it does contain. It claims that, “Hormone disruptors (same as endocrine disruptors) do not produce birth defects as claimed in the newspaper article. Regardless, studies indicate that alkylphenol ethoxylates do not have hormonal effects.” It is true that manufacturers have produced studies to support their claims. Research is ongoing. Some research has not found harmful links to health or environmental harm. Science is not at the stage of having definitive results as that can take 10 to 30 years. But some research IS finding links, and the evidence is strong enough to prompt the avoidance actions of major companies and organizations.

A Washington Toxics Coalition paper entitled Toxic Bubbles states, “Recent research on the endocrine systems of humans and wildlife has shown that a large and growing number of synthetic chemicals can interfere with this sensitive regulatory system, producing a range of effects including impaired reproduction, birth defects, behavioral abnormalities, cancers, and others. … Among the chemicals found to have estrogenic activity are the alkylphenols, especially nonylphenol and octylphenol. These compounds are present in rivers and other surface waters as a result of the partial biodegradation of alkylphenol ethoxylate surfactants.”

A Friends of the Earth briefing sheet notes, “Toxicity testing with various organisms including fish and Daphnia (a water life form) has shown that the breakdown products of alkylphenol ethoxylates are generally about ten times more toxic than the original compounds.” [When a chemical biodegrades, the compounds that result are breakdown products.] They further explain, “Extensive research in Switzerland has shown that these compounds persist in rivers and their sediments. In addition, alkylphenolic compounds are concentrated by organisms such as fish and birds, leading to contamination in their internal organs between ten and several thousand times greater than in the surrounding environment.” Humans too are part of that food chain.

Jarmila Becka, Coordinator of the Wildlife Toxicology Program for the World Wildlife Fund states, “… by using cleaning products in the schools that contain APEs, students and the custodians themselves may be exposed to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).”

In the case of APEs there is enough evidence of non-biodegradability and potential toxicity to convince governments and industry to take action – to err on the side of caution rather than waiting years for proof of harm. International companies such as DiverseyLever and Proctor and Gamble, along with an ever increasing number of cleaning product manufacturers in North America and the UK, have chosen the prudent route of voluntarily eliminating APEs from their products. Proctor & Gamble confirmed by telephone and letter that they have removed all APEs from their products. DiverseyLever noted that they have now completely removed APEs from their products.

DiverseyLever states, “This whole project [of removing APEs from products] is an example of DiverseyLever responding to a problem of proven scientific concern in aquatic toxicity (and addressing an unproven one in the process) regardless of the cost.”

The claim that APEs are not banned in Europe is technically true, because it is not a ban imposed by government. However, by voluntary agreement among manufacturers they are being gradually phased out. Switzerland has already banned the use of all APEs, and The Paris Commission, which deals with pollution of the North East Atlantic, and includes the UK, has agreed to a phase out by the year 2000.

Neither Environment Canada’s Ecologo program nor the Envirodesic Certification Program approves products containing APEs for certification.

As for the claim that two provincial school boards use “products by” the company in question, this is true. However, both operations department heads have clearly stated that the all-purpose cleaner in question is not one of the products they use. The product choice guidelines of both school boards specify that products containing APEOs (APEO is the UK and European terminology while APE is used in North America.) will not be used.

The good news is that administration of the _______ School Board have confirmed that the all-purpose cleaner will be among those re-tendered early next spring. As more products that are both safe and cost effective become available, and as consumers become more educated, it is hoped that cleaning products and other products used in our schools will be the best and safest possible.
Citizens for A Safe Learning Environment