No, no, nonyl(phenol)

Jim Vallette - February 16, 2010

Over the past half-century, epoxy paint manufacturers have used a chemical called nonylphenol to harden their products. In the built environment, the use of nonylphenol and nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) is contributing to rising indoor exposures to endocrine disruptors (chemicals that affect the hormone system). (1) In aquatic ecosystems, NPEs degrade back to nonylphenol. NP bioaccumulates up the food chain and is highly toxic to fish and shellfish. (2)

In Europe, regulators and industry have taken action to eliminate NP and NPEs from consumer products. The OSPAR Commission, which governs toxic discharges into the northeast Atlantic Ocean, includes NP and NPEs on its list of 42 chemicals for priority action, due to their endocrine disruption, bioaccumulation, and toxicological characteristics. (3) The European Commission has declared that all discharges of NP "to all water bodies should be stopped by 2015." (4)

Danish and Swedish Governments and industries have moved aggressively to stop the use of NP and NPEs in consumer products over the past two decades. "The use of NPE is almost completely phased out in Denmark," reports Miljøstyrelsen, the country's environment ministry. "The Danish market for paints and lacquers is almost exclusively served by Danish producers and importers that according to voluntary agreements have refrained from using NPE as an additive since the mid-1990s."(5)

But in the U.S., action has been slow. In 2007, a hotel workers' union, a commercial fishing association, and environmental organizations petitioned the U.S. EPA to ban NPEs in detergents. (6) After initially denying this petition, a court mediation process led the EPA to announce in 2009 it would explore developing an aquatic and sedimentary testing program. New rules will not be drafted until late 2011.

Nonylphenols released from detergents pose a direct threat to the aquatic environment, and it is great to see this action. But these toxicants also threaten human health through indoor exposures from coatings and paints. This reality remains unchallenged in the U.S. market. Coating companies routinely use NP as a hardening agent, sometimes as a direct additive, and sometimes as a monomer in NPE polymers.

This week, the Pharos Project released its third batch of High Performance Coating (HPC) product evaluations. These include several epoxies that explicitly list NP and NPEs in their material safety data sheets. Almost all of the HPCs that we have evaluated provide only partial ingredient listings. Based upon standard industry practice and the precautionary principle, whenever an HPC epoxy product does not fully disclose its ingredients, we include nonylphenol in the Pharos evaluation.

If specifiers want to avoid using endocrine disruptors and bioaccumulative toxicants in their buildings, they should take a close look at our epoxy coating evaluations. Not only are NP and NPEs ubiquitous in these products, so too are the suspected endocrine disruptors, bisphenol A and epichlorohydrin.

Later this month, the Pharos blog, The Signal, will compare the hazards of epoxy coatings with the manufacturing and use toxicities of other types of HPC: acrylic, polyurethane, and alkyds. No HPC on the market is close to an ideal ecological performer, but as our evaluations reveal, some types are demonstrably more hazardous than others.


(1) Charles J. Weschler, "Changes in indoor pollutants since the 1950s," Atmospheric Environment 43 (2009) 153-169

(2) Study on Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment, Not Regulated by the RoHS Directive, Öko-Institut e.V., April 28, 2008

(3) "Nonylphenol/Nonylphenolethoxylates," Hazardous Substances Series, OSPAR Commission 2001 (2004 Update), available at:

(4) Reference Document on Best Available Techniques in the Production of Polymers, European Commission, August 2007, p. 125

(5) "Assessment of nonylphenol," in Possible Control of EU Priority Substances in Danish Waters, Environmental Project No. 1182, 2007, available at:

(6) "Groups Demand EPA Action on Gender-Bending Chemicals," Sierra Club press release, June 5, 2007, available at:

Jim Vallette is the Research Director for the Healthy Building Network.