It’s very likely that you’ve heard of a chemical called BPA or bisphenol A. It’s been in the news because it’s an endocrine disrupting chemical used in making plastic products and in the lining of metal cans. The problem is that BPA leaches out of plastic bottles, canned foods and other products and gets into the food and drink. Trace amounts of BPA have been found in the urine of at least 90% of Americans. BPA mimics the hormone estrogen in the body and has been linked to reproductive and developmental abnormalities as well as other adverse health effects.
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Concerns about these adverse health effects led Canada to define BPA as a toxic substance and 11 states to ban its use in baby bottles and sippy cups. The FDA followed suit in July of this year. Concerns remain however about BPA leaching into infant formula, food and beverages. Approximately eight billion pounds of BPA are used each year worldwide.
Although diet is the primary route of exposure to BPA, research has shown that it can also be absorbed though the skin in a less familiar way – the handling of receipts of all kinds. BPA is the primary chemical used in cash register and thermal receipts commonly used in stores, ATM machines, gas stations, various tickets, and many other uses. BPA is used as a color developer for the printing dye. It’s applied as powder coating that acts in the presence of heat to produce an image without ink. The problem here is that the chemical is not bound to the paper, so it rubs off when you handle the receipt. It gets on your fingers and quickly gets into your blood stream. If you handle receipts every day, and it accumulates in the body, you increase your risk. This is especially a concern for workers who handle receipts all day long, or for pregnant women.
While there’s no way to tell if a receipt contains BPA or not, a number of studies have tested receipts for BPA. One study reported in the New York Times of 103 thermal receipts collected from cities in the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Vietnam in 2010 and 2011 found 94% of the receipts to contain BPA. All of the receipts in the U.S. had traces of BPA, even some marked as BPA-free. A study by researchers in Boston found 8 of 10 cash register receipts had BPA, and a study by the Environmental Working Group in 2010 found 14 of 36 receipts collected from fast food restaurants, retailers, grocery stores, gas stations and post offices tested positive for BPA.
Although studies in animals have found that very low concentrations of BPA can produce adverse effects, it’s unclear what level of exposure in people can produce adverse effects. It’s also unclear how much exposure from thermal receipts contributes to a person’s total exposure to BPA. Diet remains the primary route of exposure. It is clear, however, that there are readily available alternatives to BPA and this is another source of chemical contamination that can easily be eliminated. It’s also easy to say “no thank you,” when asked if you want your receipt.