In our chemical-laden world, toxic chemicals are often hard to avoid. Add one more way in which we can unknowingly expose ourselves to harmful chemicals: cash register receipts.
Studies have shown that a large percentage of thermal-paper receipts we get when we buy goods and other services are coated with BPA, or bisphenol A. The chemical is often used as a developer in thermal-paper receipts from fast-food chains, grocery stores, bank ATM’s, credit/debit card slips, airline tickets and other receipts, as well as devices like adding machines. Thermal paper changes color when heat is applied; not all thermal papers have BPA.
BPA is also used to soften plastics in many products, including disposable water bottles, food containers and cling wrap; it is also used in resins that line nearly all tin and aluminum food and beverage cans, to prevent spoilage.
BPA is so widely used that it is found in the urine of more than 90 percent of all Americans.
BPA has been shown in many studies to mimic estrogen, and to be linked to hormone disruptions in the endocrine glands; it’s also been linked to development of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Studies have found that BPA is also associated with developmental problems in fetuses, babies and children. In 2012, the United States Food and Drug Administration banned BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups.
But despite many consumers’ and researchers’ concerns over BPA, and a partial ban by the U.S. government on its use, billions of pounds of BPA are still produced and used each year, both in the U.S. and globally.
A recent study from the University of Missouri found that handling cash register receipts in some circumstances may substantially increase a person’s absorption of BPA.
Study subjects used hand sanitizer, then handled unused thermal paper and ate French fries with their hands; their blood BPA levels rose dramatically.
Because thermal paper is used for receipts from restaurants, food we eat with our hands can easily get contaminated, according to study lead author Julia Taylor, PhD, assistant professor of biological sciences at the U of MO.
BPA from thermal paper can also seep into the skin and be absorbed into the blood quickly; at the blood levels measured in her study, metabolic disorders like diabetes and obesity are likelier to occur, said Taylor.
Applying hand sanitizer to hands only boosted absorption of BPA into the blood: handling BPA-coated papers for just two seconds afterwards transferred 40 percent of the BPA on the paper to the skin. Blood and urine samples were taken one and a half hours later; BPA levels in some study subjects had risen 10 times from initial base levels measured. With its main ingredient usually being alcohol, hand sanitizer strips protective oils from the skin that can act as a barrier.
Due to worries from consumers about the use of BPA, some thermal paper manufacturers have recently switched to Bisphenol S, or BPS. However, Taylor points out that BPS is also a hormone disruptor, and in addition, it persists in the environment even more than BPA. As such, BPS is not a good substitute for BPA, said Taylor.
Because register receipts are often included in recycled papers, both BPA and BPS wind up in recycled paper products, increasing the potential for exposure, Dr. Taylor added.
The study was published recently in the online journal PLOS One.
In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency recommended that decision-makers consider alternative ways to print receipts.
What Can Consumers Do, to Avoid BPA/BPS Exposure from Receipts?
It’s impossible to know whether or not a thermal paper receipt has the chemicals. Until all retailers start using BPA/BPS-free receipts, the best thing to do is to minimize your handling of receipts. And never use hand sanitizer before doing so!
Consider if you even need a receipt. For small purchases and goods you know you won’t return, you can ask the teller to keep the receipt, or simply have teller place it in the bag with the merchandise, then throw away unnecessary receipts when you get home. For receipts you want to keep, maintain those in a drawer or a special compartment, and wash your hands after handling them.
Some stores also offer the option to email your receipt.
By Cynthia Sanchez. A graduate of the University of Washington, Cynthia has extensive experience writing about health and wellness topics for different media.