September 1998 Volume 20 Number 3

Health and Safety

Chris Stavroudis, Column Editor

(Two of) You Have Questions, I've Got an Answer.

I've been flooded with a plethora of phone calls about Triton X-100. Both callers wanted to know: "How dangerous is it?"

But let's review: I've written a number of columns examining the issue of xenoestrogens or estrogen mimics. These are chemicals that trigger the receptors for the hormone estrogen in the human body. There is considerable circumstantial evidence that this mucking with the endocrine system is a bad thing. One of the frightening aspects about endocrine disrupters is that the effects, if they occur, occur at shockingly low levels of exposure.

First off, according to Dr. Ana Soto (one of the researchers I mentioned in the Jan. '95 column), Triton X-100 (octylphenol polyethoxylate) is itself not a xenoestrogen. Rats, however break it down into octylphenol, which is a strongly estrogenic. It is likely, and as yet there is no evidence to the contrary, that humans metabolize Triton X-100 similarly. Studies by Richard Wolbers have also show that with artificial aging, the polyethoxylate chain is slowly lost and only the octylphenol remains.

So what do I think?

Personally, I think we should avoid Triton X-100 and other octylphenol and nonylphenol based surfactants if other detergents work as well. In previous columns I suggested Triton XL-80N as a replacement which was formulated by Union Carbide as a fish-friendly replacement for X-100. [Fish respond to estrogen mimics much more obviously than mammals and waste water contaminated at very low levels has been found to disrupt breeding of many species.]

For those situations where XL-80N doesn't perform as well as X-100, Triton X-100 can certainly be used. I would do so with caution. Avoid exposure. In particular, wear gloves. Latex gloves should be changed frequently while working.

Is it toxic? Most definitely not. Can it affect you or your unborn child? Possibly. Should you refuse to work with it? That is, of course, your choice. Consider that you are probably surrounded by similar chemicals in everyday detergents and plastics, and in such products as spermatocide (Nonoxynol-9, polyethoxylated nonylphenol) and epoxy resins (Bisphenol A).

Don't get me wrong, I am deeply concerned about exposure to xenoestrogens, but I am also back-peddling just a bit. I support testing of consumer products and industrial components for endocrine disruption. I think it is every conservator's right to know the dangers, proven and merely probable, of our chemical toolbox. I think every studio/lab that has Triton X-100 should also have Triton XL-80N (or equivalent) available.

On the other hand, Triton X-100 is not the anti-Christ, nor even in the same category as benzene, methyl alcohol, or lead, or mercury salts, or Aroclor.

I'm taking the rest of this column off! It is summer, after all. The Health and Safety Annex features an article written by Michael White of HGW and Associates on CESQGs. What is a CESQG? Read on! Special thanks to Lisa Goldberg, the Editor of AIC News, who suggested that Michael might be willing to write a column for the WAAC Newsletter.

Chris Stavroudis is a conservator in private practice.

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