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Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC, has discovered that many cash register receipts contain levels of Bisphenol-A (BPA) hundreds of times higher than those found in hard plastic water bottles, baby bottles, and canned foods. While EWG cautions that "people ingest 100 percent of any BPA that contaminates the food and beverages they consume" and that "the amount of BPA that enters the body after a person handles a receipt is unknown but likely a fraction of the total BPA on the paper," the results are still shocking.What Is BPA?
BPA, or Bisphenol-A, is an endocrine disruptor, or a substance that acts like the hormones of the endocrine system and disrupts their normal function. Other endocrine disruptors include DDT, PCB, and pthalates. In 2004, the manufacturers of BPA, which include DOW Chemical Company, produced over one million tons. Seventy-two percent went towards making polycarbonate plastics while less than 5% was used in food-contact applications.
Why Is There BPA In My Receipts?
BPA is a color developer in carbon-less copy paper and thermal paper. This paper is found not only in cash register receipts but also packing slips and parking tickets. By swabbing samples with wet wipes, EWG found that a large amount of BPA can transfer to your hands. From here it may get absorbed by your skin, as reported by a Swiss study, or you may transfer it to your mouth while eating.
Where Did EWG Find BPA-Laden Receipts?
EWG collected 36 receipts from retailers in seven states and the District of Columbia. Retailers with notably high levels of BPA in their receipts included KFC (0-48.6 µg/cm2), The United States Postal Service (16.4-19.1 µg/cm2), and (surprisingly?) Whole Foods (0-25.7 µg/cm2). Locations with low or no BPA in their receipts included Target and Bank of America. Perhaps most interesting was the finding that the receipts at the U.S. House of Representatives Cafeteria were virtually soaked in BPA (32.8 µg/cm2), while receipts at the U.S. Senate Cafeteria had none. Sounds like a conspiracy theory in the making, or at least a call to action for Representatives to take dangerous chemicals seriously.
Graphic Courtesy of EWG
How Can You Protect Yourself From BPA?
Biomonitoring studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that retail workers are exposed to more BPA than other adults. Blood concentrations of retail workers were measured at 3.2 µg/l while non-retail employees averaged 2.4 µg/l. To avoid potential ingestion or skin absorption, EWG makes the following recommendations:
- Minimize receipt collection by declining receipts at gas pumps, ATMs and other machines when possible.
- Store receipts separately in an envelope in a wallet or purse.
- Never give a child a receipt to hold or play with.
- After handling a receipt, wash hands before preparing and eating food (a universally recommended practice even for those who have not handled receipts).
- Do not use alcohol-based hand cleaners after handling receipts. A recent study showed that these products can increase the skin's BPA absorption (Biedermann 2010).
- Take advantage of store services that email or archive paperless purchase records.
- Do not recycle receipts and other thermal paper. BPA residues from receipts will contaminate recycled paper.
- If you are unsure, check whether paper is thermally treated by rubbing it with a coin. Thermal paper discolors with the friction; conventional paper does not.
Read the entire report on the EWG website.
Pablo Päster is a weekly columnist for TreeHugger.com, an experienced greenhouse gas engineer and the Senior Environmental Program Manager at Hara Software. Send your questions to Pablo(at)TreeHugger.com or submit the via this form and connect to his RSS feed.