Triton X-100 surfactant joins the list of contaminants of emerging concern

Evidence-based concerns about the environmental consequences of the widespread use of Triton X-100 have prompted calls for stricter regulation, warns Dr Akmez Nabeerasool, a project manager at industrial wastewater recycling specialist Arvia Technology

Dr Akmez Nabeerasool

Triton X-100 (TX-100) is a non-ionic surfactant in the chemical group known as octylphenol ethoxylates that has a wide variety of uses in the pharmaceutical and food industries. It is recognised for its effectiveness as a dispersant and emulsifier for oil-in-water systems and its effective performance across a broad temperature range.

Being equivalent to nonidet P-40, it is commonly used as a non-ionic detergent, emulsifier and dispersing and wetting agent in laboratories. It is also used to keep workplaces clean and maintain the highest possible hygienic standards in laboratory research, quality control and manufacturing environments, not least in the pharmaceutical, life science and food sectors.

New compounds, new risks

As technology advances at exponential rates, ever more complex and disparate substances are being discharged into our natural water courses and the atmosphere, carrying undefined risks. Manufacturing chemists are increasingly being called upon to account for the consequences of their activities by the environmentalists, legislators and regulators.

The fact of the matter is that little is known about the new compounds that are being formed in effluents from the chemical industry and other sectors. Such phenomena as vast oceanic algae blooms that are visible from space are alerting scientists to the scale and consequences of introducing unresearched pollutants into fragile ecosystems.

The current political climate of environmental awareness and disquiet means that regulation and enforced compliance are inevitable.

Endocrine disruption causing environmental concerns

Triton X-100 belongs to the substance group 4-(1,1,3,3-tetramethylbutyl) phenol, ethoxylated, via their degradation, have endocrine disrupting properties. There is growing scientific evidence of probable serious effects on the environment. And, owing to these potential endocrine disrupting properties, these chemicals are listed as emerging compounds of concern.

As such, they give rise to an equivalent level of consternation to those of other substances listed in points (a) to (e) of Article 57 of Regulation (EC) No. 1907/2006 and, therefore, meet the criteria for inclusion in Annex XIV in Article 57(f) of that legislation.

On 23 March 2017, the European Parliament ratified the REACH vote to place Triton X-100 onto Annex XIV of the REACH regulation. This means that it cannot be used or placed on the market after the “sunset date,” which is expected to be in late 2020, unless specific authorisation is granted.

New solutions

In tandem with efforts to measure the threats posed by these spontaneously formulating substances, wastewater treatment companies are doing their utmost to keep abreast of these changes and counter the threats they present.

Removing contaminants from industrial wastewater

Clearly, the most cost-effective action that relevant industries can take is to capture polluted process water on-site, then remove, as far a scientifically possible, the troublesome pollutant traces from it. It is then possible to reuse this treated water for other purposes around the manufacturing facility.

Recent scientific advances provide a route to the cost-efficient reuse of water that has been tainted, discoloured and polluted with a specific and growing list of contaminants, including TX-100. Phenomenally high removal rates (81–99%) can be achieved for many of the most problematic substances.

For manufacturing chemists using surfactants such as Triton X-100, now is the time to act. The REACH regulations mean that the availability of substances such as this will be limited in the future. Adapting your production and cleaning processes and taking time to review your wastewater treatment facilities should be a priority for the year ahead.

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