It has made the mainstream news! An Environmental Working Group (EWG) report published this week analyzes the presence of Bisphenol A (BPA) in some cash register receipts. EWG found that 40% of the receipts sampled from stores, restaurants, post offices, ATMs and gas stations nationwide contained the estrogen-mimicking chemical. The report also concluded that BPA can easily rub off onto the skin of anyone handling the receipts.
How much BPA is transferred from receipts to handlers?
The existing data are unsettling. According to the Environmental Working Group, of the receipts given a wipe test, an average 2.4% of the total BPA rubbed off.
Two-fifths of the paper receipts tested by a major laboratory commissioned by Environmental Working Group were on heat-activated paper that was between 0.8 to nearly 3 percent pure BPA by weight. Wipe tests conducted with a damp laboratory paper easily picked up a portion of the receipts’ BPA coating, indicating that the chemical would likely stick to the skin of anyone who handled them.
Biomonitoring surveys by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found BPA in the bodies of 93 percent of Americans over age 6. EWG analysis of CDC data has found that people who reported working in retail industries had 30 percent more BPA in their bodies than the average U.S. adult, and 34 percent more BPA than other workers. (CDC 2004). As of May 2009, 1 in 17 working Americans — 7 million people — were employed as retail salespersons and cashiers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.¹
It has been proposed that BPA can enter the bloodstream orally (by eating food after handling receipts) or possibly through the skin itself. A recently published Swiss study suggests that under certain conditions BPA from thermal paper may penetrate the skin too deeply to be washed off. Sandra Biedermann’s group found that holding a thermally-printed receipt for five seconds resulted in a transfer of an average of 1 μg of BPA to the fingers. This amount was multiplied ten fold if the fingers were wet or greasy.²
According to the EWG report, it’s not a good idea to use alcohol-based hand sanitizers after handling receipts. The alcohol can facilitate absorption of BPA into the skin.
Which receipts contain BPA?
As a follow-up to my last post (see BPA: It’s Not Just for Dinner Anymore), I’ve been collecting a little information of my own. I emailed several retailers including Safeway, Barnes and Noble, Target, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Big Y, Costco, Netflix, Stop and Shop, Panera Bread, Starbucks and Home Depot. I asked whether their receipts contained BPA and, if so, whether they would be willing to consider a safer receipt paper. I also inquired about the availability of electronic receipts.
Unfortunately, many responses included a legal notice at the bottom of the email informing me that I couldn’t share any of the information I’d just received, despite my having mentioned that I was writing a follow-up article. So, if inquiring minds want to know, it’s pretty easy to find a customer service contact form on websites for most of the larger banks, retailers and restaurants.
Here’s a little of what I can share — remember that it came from one person in one location: (UPDATED: 8/11/10)
Netflix: The Netflix Vice President of Corporate Communications informed me that their iconic red envelope is BPA-free.
Trader Joe’s: I still haven’t received my response, but a relative has. His local Trader Joe’s receipts do contain BPA to date.
Costco: They don’t use BPA-free register tape in any of their stores at present.
Giant and Stop and Shop Grocery Stores have issued the following statement:
“Giant and Stop & Shop continue to monitor the latest industry research related to bisphenol A (BPA). BPA has been used since the 1950s in the manufacture of plastics to improve durability and protect canned and jarred goods from corrosion and contamination.
In March 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a plan to investigate the environmental impact of BPA and its risk as a chemical component. A recent study by the Environmental Working Group raised questions regarding BPA levels on register receipts and there was an article recently in the Washington Post. The article mentioned that receipt tapes from McDonald’s, CVS, KFC, Whole Foods, and Starbucks had BPA containing receipts in some of their outlets. We are pleased to say that our receipts tapes do not contain BPA.
The health and safety of our consumers and of our own associates is of ultimate importance. While the most up to date research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and U.S. Food and Drug Administration shows that human exposure to BPA from all sources — which would include typical exposure from receipts — is extremely low, we are pleased that there is no exposure from our receipt tapes.
As always, we comply with all federal and state laws and follow protocols set into place by federal and state regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and U.S. Centers for Disease Control.”
EWG Study Results
Luckily, while I was collecting emails, the Environmental Working Group was assembling the results of its much more scientific study, which included analysis of actual receipts by the University of Missouri Division of Biological Sciences laboratory. Of the 36 samples studied, levels of Bisphenol A varied: All the U.S. Postal Service and Safeway receipts tested contained BPA, but little to no BPA was found in the Target, Bank of America and Starbucks receipts. It’s interesting to note that there can be regional differences in paper suppliers of some chain stores, which corroborates what one retailer told me about stores that are company-owned vs. franchise-owned. Some outlets of CVS, Walmart, KFC, Whole Foods, Chevron, and McDonald’s issued receipts containing BPA, while others did not. Receipts collected from McDonald’s in Superior, CO came through as virtually BPA-free, while the Clinton, CT restaurant’s receipts contained 2.7% BPA!
What does it mean that the U.S. House of Representative’s cafeteria receipts contain 1.3% BPA while those in the Senate’s cafeteria are clean as a whistle?
The Good News
- Approximately 60% of receipts tested by EWG contained no BPA, or only trace amounts.
- Consumer awareness and demand should force retailers, banks, and post offices to hasten the switch to safer paper.
- EWG recommends that all retailers switch to BPA-free receipts to reduce employees’ exposure. They also urge stores to consider offering electronic receipts.
- The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a study of BPA alternatives in thermal paper.
- The Eugene Public Library has switched to safer paper for its due slip and receipts. Maybe other libraries will follow suit.
The Environmental Working Group study only looked at 36 receipt samples. The 60:40 ratio of BPA-free to BPA-containing receipts could easily change when a larger number and variety of receipts is examined.
For more information about BPA in receipts, please see my first post: BPA: It’s Not Just for Dinner Anymore
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1) Synthetic estrogen BPA coats cash register receipts: EWG-commissioned lab tests find BPA-laden receipts from big national retailers, Environmental Working Group. (accessed 7/29/10)
2) Sandra Biedermann, Patrik Tschudin and Koni Grob, “Transfer of bisphenol A from thermal printer paper to the skin,” Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry: Springer Berlin / Heidelberg, July 11, 2010.
Photo Credit: Steve_Snodgrass on flickr