We need to talk about NPEs

We hear a lot about how our cotton is awash with chemicals. But what? And how does it affect us? Hannah Parris, co-founder of organic and fairtrade cotton underwear brand Mighty Good Undies, talks about one potent chemical — NPEs — why we should be concerned and what we can do about it.

What are NPEs and why should we be concerned?

Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs) are a large class of common ingredients found in many chemical formulations used to produce apparel and footwear materials. They are widely used as surfactants or emulsifiers in detergents, scouring agents, dye-dispersing agents, printing pastes, spinning oils and wetting agents.

NPEs can end up as residues on our clothes and are only removed once we wash them — which is where the problems begin. Research by Greenpeace, and others, shows that far from making the problem go away, the laundering processes washes out NPEs through sewage treatment plants and into local water ways where it degrades into a chemical call Nonylphenols (NPs) — a potent endocrine (hormone) distruptor to fish and humans.

NPs bioaccumulates in aquatic environments. Once there, NPs are considered to have ‘diverse and unpredictable’ impacts, but include toxicity to aquatic animals, due to its impact on a broad range of cell bio-chemical processes, and the ‘feminisation’ of male fish due to the behaviour of NPs as an ‘endocrine’ (i.e. hormone) disruptor.

Human exposure to NPE is thought to come from ingestion of aquatic foods like shellfish and fish (gee, yum!), as well as from cleaners, detergents, pesticides and cosmetics.

Info-graphic entitled 'Clothing and the Global Toxic Water Cycle' from the Greenpeace report: 'Dirty Laundry: Reloaded. How big brands are making consumers unwitting accomplices in the toxic water cycle'.

Info-graphic entitled ‘Clothing and the Global Toxic Water Cycle’ from the Greenpeace report: ‘Dirty Laundry: Reloaded. How big brands are making consumers unwitting accomplices in the toxic water cycle’.

What are the impacts of the chemical for humans?

The impact of NP on human health is hotly debated in the literature — while it is generally agreed that this chemical is toxic, there are widespread views about the level of exposure needed to induce toxicity and ill health.  It is unclear whether studies have incorporated the effects of persistence and bioaccumulation into their analysis of human exposure to NP.

NP are considered to have ‘estrogenic’ effects on the body — they mimic and ultimately disrupt the body’s natural estrogen cycle. This has a range of potential impacts on human health:

  • Presence of NP in pregnant women can impact the placenta leading to potential pregnancy loss and other complications.
  • NP has been reported as disrupting the body’s natural hormone cycles for regulating hunger and appetite.
  • NP has been found in human breast milk, and exposure has been linked to the proliferation of breast cancer cells.

So have prevalent is NPs in our clothes?

It varies a lot.  A 2011 study of 14 biosolid (i.e. sewage sludge) samples from 13 Australian wastewater treatment plants found that NP was present in all samples and that concentrations in 4 samples exceeded the EU limit value for this type of emissions.

In a 2012 study, Greenpeace tested a range garments purchased around the world and found that:

  • 52 (two-thirds) of the 78 articles tested positive for the presence of NPEs at concentrations above the limit of detection (1 mg/kg).
  • The range of residues detected varied enormously: levels of NPEs in plain fabric samples ranged from just above 1 mg/kg to 1100 mg/kg.
  • NPEs were detected in products
    • Purchased in 12 of the 13 manufacturing countries included in the study
    • 14 of the 15 brands tested
    • 17 out the 18 countries in which clothing purchases were made.

A 2013  by the Environment Agency in the UK study  of cotton underwear found that:

  • 29% of imported cotton underwear tested contained NPE above the detection limit of 3 mg/kg.
  • Over 99.9% of NPE was released from the samples after two washes at 40ºC using liquid biological detergent.
  • There is evidence that not all NPE is removed by waste water treatment works; so, washing textile articles containing NPE provides a pathway for NPE to enter the UK’s water environment.

Because NPEs wash out of clothing when laundered, and wash into local sewage treatment plants, Greenpeace argues that ‘brands are making their consumers unwitting accomplices in the release of these hazardous substances into public water supplies’.

Textile-Dyeing-Wastewater-in-Hangzhou-Bay-Lu-Guang

Are NPEs regulated?

There are no restrictions on the use of NPEs in Australia nor restrictions on the import of textiles with NPE residues.

The USA has no regulation related to NPE use in the textile industry or on garments for sale in that market but does require notification for ‘significant new uses’. This notification mechanism will allow the EPA to review the new use with the potential for further regulation or even banning. It is unclear (although unlikely) that this process will include regulation of garments.

Canada does regulate NPE use in its domestic textile mill industry, but it is unclear whether there are any regulations on imported textiles (unlikely to be any).

THe EU has recently passed new regulation under the REACH Legislation, to limit concentrations of NPEs to below 0.01%  (or 100 parts per million) in all textiles sold in the EU. However, this is regulation will only come into force after February 2021.

While acknowledging that some companies have set voluntary limits, Greenpeace argues that the EU compulsory limit to residues are still too high (100 parts per million) and will continue to allow millions of tonnes of NPEs to be released into water-ways as textiles are both manufactured and laundered by consumers.

Greenpeace has called on all major brands — the most powerful players within the global textile supply chain — to completely remove the use of NPEs (and its related chemicals) from their manufacturing processes.

So how can we be sure our supplier are using zero NPEs in their processes?

Buy organic cotton! While some brands are starting to phase out the use of NPEs, the only way you can be sure is to purchase certified organic cotton — such as those certified under The Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) (the eco-textile standard used by Mighty Good Undies) —  that completely prohibits the use of NPEs and its related family of chemicals.

About Mighty Good Undies

Mighty Good Undies is a new underwear brand making super soft certified organic and Fairtrade cotton undies sewn by adults who get paid a living wage. Plus we’ve pair each with a 1 kg carbon offset. What’s not to love?

The Mighty Good Undies is currently running a crowdfunding campaign (end 18 May)  to raise funds for their first production run and to take the brand to the world’s largest ethical fashion trade show in Berlin in June 2016.

To pledge for your pair of organic and Fairtrade cotton undies see: Start Some Good

To find out more about Mighty Good Undies check out:

Website, TwitterInstagram and Facebook

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About the Author

Hannah is an eco-entrepreneur, eco-activist and a consultant and researcher specialising in institutional economics and natural resource management.

After finishing her Phd in institutional economics and fisheries management at the ANU in 2010, she concluded that a natural career progression would be to start a eco-fashion label to demonstrate that business and a deep commitment to ecological sustainability and social justice was indeed possible. She is photographed wearing a certified organic and fairtrade cotton dress made in an ethical factory. Prior to this, Hannah spent over 12 years working in public policy for the Australian Government and as the economics advisor to Senator Bob Brown.