You stand in line with your latte, your tube of toothpaste or your cart of groceries, you hand over your cash or credit card to the cashier, and he hands you back the receipt. You check that the amount looks right, then stuff it in your pocket or purse. Maybe you pull it out later to make a record of your purchase and then toss it in the wastebasket or slip it into a file. And then — you forget about it.
You should give that little scrap of paper a second thought.
This spring, researchers at Environmental Working Group collected 36 samples of cash register receipts from fast food restaurants, big retailers, grocery stores, gas stations and post offices in seven states and the District of Columbia and had them tested by a renowned lab. The lab found that 40 percent had high levels of the endocrine-disrupting chemical BPA, which has been the target of nationwide efforts to ban it in food and beverage containers, especially those used by babies and children. Animal tests show that BPA, a plastics hardener that is also a synthetic estrogen, can cause reproductive and behavioral abnormalities and lower intellectual ability, as well as setting the stage for cancers, obesity, diabetes, asthma and heart disease.
The tainted receipts tested by EWG came from a variety of well-known outlets including McDonald’s, KFC, CVS, Walmart, Safeway and Whole Foods.
The tests also showed that the BPA on the receipts could easily rub off onto the hands of anyone who handles them. That’s a potential worry for shoppers but even more so for the tens of thousands of store and restaurant workers who handled hundreds of receipts daily. Federal data analyzed by EWG shows that retail workers carry an average of 30 percent more BPA in their bodies than other adults.
As Jane Houlihan, EWG’s Senior Vice-President for Research, put it:
“A typical employee at any large retailer who runs the register could handle hundreds of the contaminated receipts in a single day at work. While we do not know exactly what this means for people’s health, it’s just one more path of exposure to this chemical that seems to bombard every single person.”
The source of the BPA is the paper used in these cash registers. This “thermal paper” is coated with a dye and a second chemical, which is often BPA. When a cash register imprints on the paper, its heats brings out the black lettering, avoiding the need to have ink in the printer.
EWG’s testing found amounts of EPA on receipts that were 250 to 1,000 times greater than in the more widely discussed sources of BPA exposure, especially canned foods, baby bottles and infant formula. Because the BPA in food is completely ingested, this remains by far the most worrisome route of exposure. It is unclear how much of the BPA that rubs off on skin gets into the bloodstream, but it’s likely to be a fraction of the total BPA on the paper.
What is clear, however, is that it wouldn’t be hard to get rid of the BPA in thermal paper. In fact, a number of the outlets sampled by EWG issued receipts that had no BPA or only trace amounts. They included such well-known companies as Target, Starbucks and Bank of America ATMs. And some big chains used BPA-laced paper in some outlets but not others. If they can get along without BPA-laden paper, there’s no reason everyone can’t.
For that matter, the leading U.S. maker of thermal paper, Appleton Papers Inc., no longer incorporates BPA in its products. Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has launched a program to evaluate the safety and availability of alternatives to BPA in thermal paper. (LINK)
EWG president and co-founder Ken Cook has written to the top executives of major retailers whose outlets issued BPA-laden receipts that figured in our study, urging them to switch to BPA-free alternatives for the sake of their employees and customers.
In the meantime, EWG has some advice for consumers:
(By the way, it’s easy to check whether a receipt is printed on thermal paper. Just rub it with a coin. The heat of the friction will discolor thermal paper, but not conventional paper.)