I feel like I’ve had my head stuck in the sand for the last nine months! A few days ago, I just happened to stumble across an article published last October in Science News that floored me. How could this information not have been shouted from the rooftops? How could I have missed it? While I’ve been worrying about BPA in plastic bottles and my tomato sauce, I’ve been handling another source almost every day — receipts!
Scenario #1: You and your child are at the checkout in the grocery store. You swipe your ATM or credit card and your receipt slips out of the cash register. Sales slip in hand, you return to your car, get your child buckled in and hand him something to snack on while you drive home.
Scenario #2: You’ve just been to the ATM so you have enough cash to get lunch with your friends. You check the balance on the ATM receipt and stick it in your wallet. Now you’re ready to eat that sandwich!
Scenario #3: No time for lunch before the school soccer game, so you pick up a pizza from your favorite, eco-conscious gourmet pizza restaurant and have a picnic on the grass.
Scenario #4: It’s tax time and you’re stressed out. Riffling through a pile of credit card receipts you methodically empty that box of chocolates — Okay, maybe’s that just me…
What might all these situations have in common? Bisphenol A. BPA is an endocrine disruptor linked to heart disease, diabetes, liver toxicity, sexual and behavioral problems, some cancers and more. You’ve probably already heard that BPA is found in some plastic bottles and in the epoxy coating that lines many food cans. What if we were exposed to hundreds of times more BPA every day than the amount that slowly leaches out of these containers? According to John C. Warner of the Warner Babcock Institute of Green Chemistry, receipts can be a source of relatively high levels of un-bound BPA:
“When people talk about polycarbonate bottles, they talk about nanogram quantities of BPA [leaching out],” Warner observes. “The average cash register receipt that’s out there and uses the BPA technology will have 60 to 100 milligrams of free BPA.” By free, he explains, it’s not bound into a polymer, like the BPA in polycarbonates. It’s just the individual molecules loose and ready for uptake.
As such, he argues, when it comes to BPA in the urban environment, “the biggest exposures, in my opinion, will be these cash register receipts.” Once on the fingers, BPA can be transferred to foods. And keep in mind, he adds, some hormones — like estrogen in certain birth-control formulations — are delivered through the skin by controlled-release patches. So, he argues, estrogen mimics like BPA might similarly enter the skin.¹
Why do receipts contain BPA?
Many modern receipts are printed without the use of external ink. Credit card receipts comprised of carbonless copy paper and cash register receipts using thermal imaging technology rely on chemicals to create images through heat or pressure. A layer of BPA coats this type of receipt to stabilize the image. Old fashioned cash registers still use ink ribbons or cartridges to print on bond paper (not shiny). According to John Warner, it’s impossible to tell by looking at them which shiny thermal receipts contain BPA and which don’t.
Did you know?
- Japan changed to BPA-free receipts.
- Recycled pizza boxes are a source of BPA that comes in contact with your food. Yup, all those recycled receipts helped make that pizza box.
- Recycled newspapers contributed, too, since newspaper ink also contains BPA. Did you eat a croissant while you read your morning paper?
- Recycled toilet paper can contain BPA – yikes!
- Appleton makes a BPA-free thermal receipt paper. (Read more about Appleton receipts at Eco Women.)
Why isn’t BPA banned in the United States?
Ah, this is a tricky one. The two main players determining the fate of BPA are the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (Too many acronyms, I know!) While the FDA claims there isn’t enough evidence yet to issue an outright ban on BPA that comes in contact with food, the EPA might come to the rescue by requiring its removal from thermal and carbonless receipts. By the end of 2011, the EPA will rule whether BPA is a threat to aquatic life, and thus an environmental hazard.
The EPA plans to :
… Initiate collaborative alternatives assessment activities under its Design for the Environment (DfE) program to encourage reductions in BPA releases and exposures. One of these activities, to be initiated in April 2010, will address thermal and carbonless paper coatings used in such applications as cash register receipts, a use where preferable alternatives to BPA may be readily available. This DfE environmental and health assessment is expected to be completed in the latter half of 2011… ²
According to the Washington Post, an FDA ban on BPA in food-related items could also take quite some time:
The FDA said in January that it had “some concern” about possible health effects linked to BPA but did not have enough reason to restrict its use and would study the question over 18 to 24 months. The Environmental Protection Agency says that it, too, wants to study the matter. And the National Institutes of Health are spending $30 million over the next two years, also examining whether BPA poses a health risk.³
The good news is that many states and regions have banned BPA on their own. Also, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is tired of waiting for the FDA to get moving on BPA. They filed a lawsuit against the FDA at the end of June:
WASHINGTON (June 29, 2010) — The Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit today against the Food and Drug Administration for its failure to act on a petition to ban the use of bisphenol A (BPA) in food packaging, food containers, and other materials likely to come into contact with food. BPA, a hormone-disrupting chemical linked to serious health problems, poses a particular risk to fetuses, infants and young children. NRDC filed today’s lawsuit in U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.4
What can we do to minimize our exposure to BPA from receipts?
- Wash your hands whenever possible after handling receipts.
- Don’t let children hold the receipts.
- Ask store managers if their receipt paper is free of BPA. If not, ask them to consider using a BPA-free alternative, such as Appleton. The customer is king.
- Don’t recycle receipts that might contain BPA! If we keep BPA out of the recycled paper stream, recycled pizza boxes and toilet paper will be less toxic.
- Choose not to take a receipt whenever possible. This option becomes tricky if you need to return something or dispute a charge. Some stores allow you to receive paperless e-receipts through services like allEtronic and TransactionTree. Electronic receipts are much better for the environment, too. According to allEtronic, nine million trees are cut down every year just to produce paper for receipts!
I’ll be checking with the stores that we frequent and I’ll let you know what I learn about their receipts!
Please see also: BPA in Receipts, Part 2
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2) Bisphenol A (BPA) Action Plan Summary, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (accessed 7/14/10)
4) “Lawsuit Seeks to Ban BPA from Food Packaging,” Natural Resources Defense Council Press Release, June 29, 2010.