Alkylphenols

At a Glance

Alkylphenols are a group of chemicals that are used in the manufacturing of detergents, cleaners, and other products. They are found throughout our indoor and outdoor environments and disrupt the body’s hormone system.

What are alkylphenols?

Alkylphenols are used to make alkylphenol ethoxylates, surfactants that increase the efficiency of detergents and other cleaning products. They are also used as raw materials in the production of plastics and pesticides.[1] One of the most common alkylphenols is 4-nonylphenol (4-NP).[2]

Where are alkylphenols found?

Alkylphenols are found in many industrial and household cleaning products. Traces of alkylphenols can also be found in leather textiles, agricultural chemicals, spermicides, and plastics.[3],[4]

In a study of air contamination in 120 homes, 100 percent of the homes contained alkylphenols.[5] These chemicals also persist in the outdoor environment, found in sewage water, aquatic environments, and groundwater.[6],[7]

Some alkylphenols such as nonylphenol (NP), are used as additives in pesticides, leading to their presence in certain foods. The types of foods that contain NP vary in different regions of the world. For instance, in Sweden[8] they were found to be more prevalent in fruits, vegetables and cereals, whereas in Taiwan they were more common in meat and fish.[9]

What evidence links alkylphenols to breast cancer?

Alkylphenols are endocrine disruptors that have the ability to mimic or disrupt estrogen hormones.  Biological processes that are generally controlled by estrogen, such as cell communication and protein formation, can be altered when cells are exposed to alkylphenols.[10]

  • Mice treated with 4-NP developed mammary cancer at higher rates and experienced higher rates of metastasis at younger ages.[11]
  • An in vitro study on breast cancer cells showed that 4-NP has the ability to increase the activity of the enzyme responsible for creating estriol, an estrogenic hormone. High levels of estrogen have been linked to breast cancer.[12]
  • Alkylphenols were also shown to increase the replication rates of estrogen-dependent breast cancer cells in an in vitro study on breast cancer cells.[13]

Who is most likely to be exposed to alkylphenols?

A study completed by the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey found that 51 percent of the tested population had detectable amounts of 4-NP in urine samples. No significant differences were observed in amount of 4-NP among categories of age, race or gender.[14]

Similar levels of 4-NP and octylphenol have also been detected in blood serum and breast milk samples in breast-feeding women. These chemicals can be passed on to infants, though the benefits of breast-feeding outweigh the potential risk.[15],[16],[17]

Who is most vulnerable to the health effects?

Pregnant women, fetuses and young children are most vulnerable to alkylphenols, because at these life stages breast tissue is most susceptible to endocrine disruptors.[18]

What are the top tips to avoid exposure?

  • Read labels and avoid products containing the following alkylphenols: propylphenol, butylphenol, amylphenol, heptylphenol, octylphenol, nonylphenol, dodecylphenol, methylphenol and ethylphenol.
  • Dispose of household chemicals properly, by using a free household hazardous waste pick-up, or any other safe disposal method

[1] Alkylphenols. (n.d.). http://www.doverchem.com/products/alkylphenols. Retrieved March 23, 2016.

[2] Annamalai, J., & Namasivayam, V. (2015). Endocrine disrupting chemicals in the atmosphere: Their effects on humans and wildlife. Environment International, 76, 78–97. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2014.12.006

[3] Annamalai, J., & Namasivayam, V. (2015). Endocrine disrupting chemicals in the atmosphere: Their effects on humans and wildlife. Environment International, 76, 78–97. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2014.12.006

[4] Kráľová, K. & Jampílek, J. (2015). Impact of environmental contaminants on breast cancer. Ecological Chemistry and Engineering. 2(1): 9-44.

[5] Dunagan, S. C., Dodson, R. E., Rudel, R. A., & Brody, J. G. (2011). Toxics Use Reduction in the Home: Lessons Learned from Household Exposure Studies. Journal of Cleaner Production, 19(5), 438–444. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2010.06.012

[6] Koniecko, I., Staniszewska, M., Falkowska, L., Burska, D., Kielczewska, J., & Jasinska, A. (2014). Alkylphenols in Surface Sediments of the Gulf of Gdansk (Baltic Sea). Water, Air, and Soil Pollution, 225, 2040. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11270-014-2040-8

[7] Fujita, M., Ike, M., Mori, K, Kaku, H., Sakaguchi, Y., Asano, N., Maki, H. & Nishihara, T. (2000). Behavior of nonylphenol ethoxylates in sewage treatment plants in Japan—biotransformation and exotoxicity. Water, Science and Tecnology,42(7-8): 23-30.

[8] Gyllenhammar, I., Glynn, A., Darnerud, P., Lignell, S., Delft, R. & Aune, M. (2012). 4-Nonphylphenol and bisphenol A in Swedish food and exposure in Swedish nursing women. Environmental International, 43, 21-28.

[9] Lu, Y.Y., Chen, M.L., Sung, F.C., Wang, P.S., Mao, I.F. (2007). Daily intake of 4-nonylphenol in Taiwanese. Environmental International, 33(7):903–10.

[10] Annamalai, J., & Namasivayam, V. (2015). Endocrine disrupting chemicals in the atmosphere: Their effects on humans and wildlife. Environment International, 76, 78–97. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2014.12.006

[11] Acevedo, R., Parnell, P. G., Villanueva, H., Chapman, L. M., Gimenez, T., Gray, S. L., & Baldwin, W. S. (2005). The contribution of hepatic steroid metabolism to serum estradiol and estriol concentrations in nonylphenol treated MMTVneu mice and its potential effects on breast cancer incidence and latency. Journal of Applied Toxicology: JAT, 25(5), 339–353. http://doi.org/10.1002/jat.1078

[12] Kráľová, K. & Jampílek, J. (2015). Impact of environmental contaminants on breast cancer. Ecological Chemistry and Engineering, 2(1): 9-44.

[13] Maras, M., Vanparys, C., Muylle, F., Robbens, J., Berger, U., Barber, J. L.,De Coen, W. (2006). Estrogen-Like Properties of Fluorotelomer Alcohols as Revealed by MCF-7 Breast Cancer Cell Proliferation. Environmental Health Perspectives, 114(1), 100–105. http://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.8149

[14] Calafat, A. M., Kuklenyik, Z., Reidy, J. A., Caudill, S. P., Ekong, J., & Needham, L. L. (2005). Urinary concentrations of bisphenol A and 4-nonylphenol in a human reference population. Environmental Health Perspectives, 113(4), 391–395.

[15] Exposure to Environmental Toxins. 2010. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/disease/environmental_toxins.htm. Accessed August 14, 2016.

[16] Gyllenhammar, I., Glynn, A., Darnerud, P., Lignell, S., Delft, R. & Aune, M. (2012). 4-Nonphylphenol and bisphenol A in Swedish food and exposure in Swedish nursing women. Environmental International, 43: 21-28.

[17] Lu, Y.Y., Chen, M.L., Sung, F.C., Wang, P.S., Mao, I.F. (2007). Daily intake of 4-nonylphenol in Taiwanese. Environmental International, 33(7):903–10.

[18] IBCERCC. (2013). Breast Cancer and the Environment. Prioritizing Prevention. http://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/assets/docs/ibcercc_full_508.pdf. Accessed August, 14 2016.

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