IDENTIFICATION AND USE: Octylphenol ethoxylates (OPEs) are a group of related chemicals. They are chemically very similar to Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs). Under normal conditions, OPEs are thick liquids or waxy solids, varying in colour from clear to light orange. OPEs are stable. The degree to which they are soluble in water varies, but most are readily soluble in organic (carbon-containing) solvents.

Releases of OPEs may occur during their manufacture or during the many uses and disposal of products containing them. There are not thought to be any natural sources of OPEs to the environment.

ENVIROMENTAL EXPOSURE: OPEs are known to be very toxic to wildlife, particularly aquatic organisms. There is also concern that they mimic the behaviour of animal hormones, that they are an “endocrine disruptor”. OPEs break down relatively easily into Octylphenols (OPs), which are more harmful and can be very persistent in the environment. This persistence means that they can be transported far from the point of original release of OPEs. OPs are accumulated and concentrated by aquatic organisms and birds. It is therefore possible that the presence of OPEs and hence OPs in the environment poses a long-term threat to wildlife on both a local and global scale.

HUMAN EXPOSURE AND TOXICITY: Octylphenol ethoxylates can enter the body either by inhalation of air containing octylphenol ethoxylates, ingestion of contaminated food or water, or by dermal contact with octylphenol ethoxylates or products containing octylphenol ethoxylates.

ADVERSE EFFECTS: there is little evidence available for the full effects of exposure to octylphenol ethoxylates on human health. However, exposure to high levels of octylphenol ethoxylates may cause irritation of the lungs, digestive system, skin and eyes. Octylphenol ethoxylates are thought to interfere with hormones in animals and may therefore interfere with the development and reproductive system in animals. Octylphenol ethoxylates readily degrade in the environment to the more toxic, octylphenol. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has not designated octylphenol ethoxylates in terms of their carcinogenicity. However, exposure to octylphenol ethoxylates at normal background levels is unlikely to have any adverse effect on human health.