Cancer-linked BPA in Store Receipts

As a nod to greenness, many people avoid taking receipts when they make purchases at a store. Now there’s another reason not to take your store receipts: avoiding contact with the bisphenol-A (BPA) that is often used as a color developer on thermal sensitive cash register paper.

Can you believe it? Even receipts you get for buying supplements at the health food store can cause cancer. As I’ve written several times before, BPA is bad stuff with a rap sheet as long as the Gambino family’s. And despite the FDA’s blessing, the list of charges keeps growing.

Used in making plastics–most notably water bottles and food containers, BPA mimics the effects of estrogen and has, in the past, been linked to breast and prostate cancers, diabetes, birth defects, and heart disease, among other things. A study last year connected BPA exposure with erectile dysfunction in men. And just a few months ago, I reported on a British study that showed that those with high concentrations of BPA in their urine were twice as likely to have coronary heart disease.

What’s BPA doing in cash register paper? To make thermal paper, manufacturers sprinkle the surface of one side with a powdery coating that contains BPA, dye, and solvent. When the paper is heated or subjected to pressure, the coating ingredients combine and release the ink’s color.

Three recent studies have assayed the amount of BPA that is found in cash register receipts and its transferability to the skin. Researchers at the Warner Babcock for Green Chemistry in Wilmington, MA looked at 10 receipts and found BPA in six of them, in quantities ranging from 1.09 to 1.7 percent by mass, and in two more, in quantities of .30 to .83 percent BPA

Separately, a Swiss study looked at 13 European receipts and found that in eleven, 0.8 to 1.7 percent of the paper’s mass was BPA. According to the co-author of this study, analytical Chemist Koni Grall, a substantial amount of BPA rubbed off the paper from contact with dry fingers. Wet fingers picked up ten times more. But even with dry skin, two hours after contact, around 30 percent of the BPA that rubbed off the paper and onto the skin "was no longer extractable — could not be washed off."

Grall theorizes that the BPA probably was absorbed into fatty or waxy elements of the skin. He goes on to say, "The shocking thing is what happened when I applied a bit of BPA onto my fingers with ethanol [alcohol]. After two hours it had disappeared. Totally." In other words, the alcohol significantly enhanced the absorption of BPA into the skin.

In the Washington, DC area, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) assayed 36 receipts that they collected from DC area retailers, as well as stores in seven other states and several in a city in Japan. Says study leader Frederick vom Saal of the University of Missouri in Columbia, "I won’t touch receipts now." His study not only confirmed the wet-versus-dry transfer rate reported by Grall, but it also showed that the longer you hold the receipt, the more BPA gets transferred to your skin.

According to Grall, the exposure from touching one receipt is miniscule — 2.5 percent of the tolerable daily intake (assuming you believe that the assessment of what’s tolerable is valid). But for someone who is working in a retail store, handling receipts all the time and using skin cream, the intake could reach what European and US health authorities define as the tolerable limit — 50 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight. The concentrations of pure BPA found in a surface coating on register paper can be as high as 10%.

Again, the bottom line is that longer contact and contact accompanied by moisture significantly increases the exposure. This means that drooling babies who play with store receipts, people with sweaty hands, those who use skin creams and oils, and those who have frequent contact with cash register receipts are likely candidates for higher levels of absorption of BPA.

The EWG notes, "Retail workers carry an average of 30 percent more BPA in their bodies than other adults. It is unclear how much BPA-coated receipts contribute to people’s total exposure to the ubiquitous plastics chemical. What is certain, however, is that since many retail outlets already use BPA-free paper for their receipts, this is one source of contamination that could easily be eliminated completely." And the EWG mentions a hopeful statistic: 60 percent of the receipts collected did not have significant levels of BPA. Indeed, according to the EWG, "The leading U.S. thermal paper maker, Wisconsin-based Appleton Papers Inc., no longer incorporates BPA in any of its thermal papers." They take these facts as evidence that retailers are using alternatives.

It’s not possible to distinguish the BPA containing receipts by looking at them, although you can tell if the receipt is thermally treated if it discolors when you rub it with a coin. The study by the Environmental Working Group gives some hints about what to avoid. According to its online summary, "The receipt for a McDonald’s Happy Mealâ„¢ purchased in Clinton, Conn., on April 21, 2010, had an estimated 13 milligrams of BPA. That equals the amount of BPA in 126 cans of Chef Boyardee Overstuffed Beef Ravioli in Hearty Tomato & Meat Sauce — one of the products with the highest concentrations of BPA in EWG’s 2007 tests of canned foods." In fairness, the EWG did point out that receipts from a McDonald’s in Japan had undetectable levels of BPA. It also noted that Safeway had the highest levels of BPA in its receipts by several measures.

There are specific steps you can take to minimize exposure to BPA from store receipts. The EWG advises that you go paperless whenever possible, stash receipts in a separate wallet or envelope and handle them as little as possible, avoid the use of alcohol-based hand cleaners after handling receipts, and wash your hands immediately after handling receipts. Don’t give receipts to toddlers and babies to play with. And finally, don’t recycle BPA laden receipts. Remember, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean your receipts aren’t trying to kill you!

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Jon Barron

Jon Barron is a researcher, author, lecturer and founder of Baseline of Health Foundation. He has wrapped his mind around every natural therapy known to man and brought it together in a whole body package--delivering a whole body “system” program, a high-end line of nutraceutical products, and cutting-edge functional foods and drinks for consumers to enjoy.

Combining his knowledge and research with modern science, he continues to pioneer the alternative health industry and help consumers world-wide with his free health information and natural health newsletter. You can also download a free copy of his cutting-edge health book, “Lessons From The Miracle Doctors” by visiting his website.

Jon Barron’s high-end line of health supplements for natural colon cleansing, immune system support, digestive health, and anti aging nutrition can be found at

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  1. Vi S. says

    So what is the impact on cashiers who don’t handle more than half a dozen such receipts in a day of shopping plus lunch, for example, but for every customer who goes through the checkstand during an 8-hour shift?byiE

  2. Warehouse Worker says

    I spend my entire eight hour shift applying thermally printed shipping labels with my bare hands. I have done this for the last fifteen years. How can I find out if these labels contain BPA? I handle upwards of a thousand labels a day, and I have some health issues with no apparent cause, what should I ask my doctor?

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