Toxic Chemical May Be Lurking in Your Wallet

Receipt paper contains high levels of toxic bisphenol A, a new report finds, and the chemical can easily rub off onto hands, food, and anything else it touches.

Emily Main August 9, 2010

Stuffing your wallet with all those receipts could be exposing you to an unnecessary health hazard.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Eight billion pounds of the toxic chemical bisphenol A (BPA) are produced every year. It's used in canned food, plastics, furniture, dental sealants, and, in some countries, pesticides.

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Apparently, BPA is also frequently used in one product that's so ubiquitous you may have a pocketful of it at this very moment: receipt paper. You know, the bits that come out of ATM machines, credit card machines, cash registers, and gas station pumps. A new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has found that receipts containing BPA—a substance that interferes with your hormonal system and has been linked to a variety of problems from heart disease to testicular damage—are a potentially major source of exposure. Just how major, though, is still up for debate.

THE DETAILS: Researchers from EWG collected receipts from various stores and fast-food chains in seven states and the District of Columbia. The receipts were sent to a lab at the University of Missouri, Columbia, where scientists tested each one to determine how much BPA was used in each. Some receipts underwent additional swab testing, in which the lab scientists rubbed damp paper over them to gauge how much BPA would rub off from the receipts onto someone's hands.

The good news is that just 40 percent of the receipts collected contained detectable levels of BPA. The bad news is that, among those that did contain the chemical, the levels of BPA detected were 250 to 1,000 times higher than levels detected in the linings of canned food (BPA is used to make the epoxy resin used in nearly all canned foods). On average, BPA made up just under 2 percent of the total weight of the receipt, with some of the highest levels found in receipts from Safeway supermarket locations in California and DC.

But the levels weren't consistent across entire chains. For instance, receipt paper collected from a McDonald's in Connecticut contained some of the highest levels of BPA detected, while another McDonald's, one in Colorado, contained only trace amounts. The same held true for receipts from Wal-Mart, CVS, and Whole Foods. On the other hand, two other chains, Starbucks and Target, along with Bank of America's ATM receipts, had consistently low or undetectable levels of BPA on all the receipts collected from all the different locations. Finally, the swab tests revealed that BPA wipes off the receipts fairly easily. On average, about 2.5 percent of the BPA used in receipt paper came off onto the swabs.

WHAT IT MEANS: In many cases, receipts are a waste of paper as it is. For example, do you really need a receipt for the hamburger you just bought? Well, now you have another reason to decline them. "For the general population, especially for infants and children, we still believe food containers [plastics containing BPA and canned food with BPA-containing liners] are the primary source of exposure," says Anila Jacob, MD, MPH, senior scientist at EWG and one of the report's authors. "But we do think receipts are a potentially significant source of exposure, especially for the millions of people in the retail industry." Cashiers and salespeople sometimes handle hundreds of receipts a day, every day they work, she adds, so for them it poses a significant risk.

What remains unknown, Dr. Jacob says, is how much BPA the average person absorbs after coming into contact with a receipt. It's easy to assume that someone could ingest BPA after handling a receipt and then eating soon afterwards, or by placing a receipt in a grocery bag where the BPA can rub off onto unpackaged produce, she says, "but we just don't know how much that contributes to our overall exposure." Still, BPA-free receipt paper is clearly a feasible and available option, she says, because several of the of larger retailers used receipts that contained no BPA. "Why have another unnecessary, additional source of exposure?" she asks.

As Dr. Jacob notes, avoiding canned food is the best way to reduce your exposure to BPA, but here are a few additional tips on safe handling of receipts:

• Just say "no thanks!" Most gas stations and ATMs give you the option of declining receipts already. In other situations, ask the cashier not to print one out, particularly if you're paying with cash and don't need a record of your transaction.

• Keep receipts out of your recycle bin. If you conscientiously recycle every receipt you get, stop! When these receipts are recycled to create new paper products, the BPA ends up in those products. Example: Waste-management professionals in Greece and Japan have done studies tracing BPA in wastewater back to toilet tissue that was made from recycled paper. (Follow that?)

• Store your receipts in an envelope or bag—but not in your wallet. This prevents BPA from rubbing off of receipts onto cash or credit cards you may handle frequently.

• Wash your hands—but avoid hand sanitizers. It’s good to wash your hands after handling receipts, says Dr. Jacob, but avoid alcohol-based hand sanitizers. A recent Swiss study found that people who used those sanitizers then handled receipts absorbed more BPA into their skin than people who washed their hands before handling receipts. "This is a key point, because cashiers handling money often use these alcohol solutions to keep their hands clean," she says.