There’s a very decent chance that the receipts in your wallet or purse are covered in chemicals that might contribute to autism, reproductive impairment and obesity.
An analysis from Michigan-based environmental non-profit The Ecology Center released Wednesday found that 93% of receipts tested positive for BPA or BPS, chemicals that are correlated with negative effects on hormones, metabolism and other bodily functions.
Researchers analyzed 207 receipts from a variety of businesses including large retailers, major supermarket chains and fast-food restaurants to produce the report. The report was produced in partnership with Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a national coalition of environmental and health organizations.
What are BPS and BPA, and why should consumers be concerned?
BPA (bisphenol A) and BPS (bisphenol S) are chemicals that are used as color developers. Many businesses don’t print receipts with ink, but rather employ receipt printers that use thermal papers. These chemicals are included within a heat-sensitive layer on this paper. So when a heated printer head in a receipt printer comes into contact with this layer, these chemicals produce the printed image.
The chemicals aren’t just used in receipts. Many consumers are familiar with BPA because it is commonly used in plastics and the linings of food and beverage containers. However, research has linked the chemical to a wide range of adverse health outcomes because the chemical can mimic estrogen when it enters the human body. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned BPA from baby bottles as a result, and many retailers moved to remove the chemical from their products.
Meanwhile, BPS remains incredibly common. Indeed, many companies swapped it in for BPA. But studies have suggested that it could be as harmful as BPA and could contribute to disorders such as diabetes, asthma and cancer, Scientific American reported. One study suggested that detectable levels of BPS could be found in urine samples among 81% of Americans.
Nearly 90% of human exposure to BPS can be traced to receipts, according to a report from researchers at the State University of New York at Albany and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. And receipt paper, to the extent that it is recycled, can cause these chemicals to crop up in other unexpected products, such as paper goods made of recycled materials. In the study performed by The Ecology Center, 75% of receipts contained BPS, and 18% contained BPA.
What are businesses doing about this?
Trader Joe’s announced Tuesday that it plans to switch to receipt paper that is free of phenol chemicals including BPA and BPS and that it will be rolling new paper “out to all stores as soon as possible.”
But some retailers appear to have already taken this step. The Ecology Center’s analysis found that receipts from Best Buy
contained Pergafast 201, a replacement for BPA and BPS that does not pose the same health risk. The move to use this paper stemmed from Best Buy’s chemical management strategy, which the company made public last August.
Other businesses cited in the study as using chemical-laden receipts, including TJX
did not immediately return requests for comment, nor did the National Retail Federation. When asked for comment, the National Restaurant Association redirected the inquiry to the National Paper Trade Association.
Meanwhile, European regulators banned BPA in thermal paper (including receipts) in 2016 — the ban also called for more research into the use of BPS and the adverse health effects it could have.
Who is at most at risk?
Because of the manner in which BPA and BPS are added to receipt paper, the chemicals can be easily absorbed by the skin. And having moist or greasy fingers, using hand cream, or cleansing with hand sanitizer can speed up that absorption. And if people don’t wash their hands before eating after they touch a receipt, the chemicals can be transferred into the body that way as well.
But while anyone who comes into contact with a receipt will absorb some of these chemicals, cashiers or other employees who handle receipts at a business are at particular risk. Research has indicated that a worker handling receipts will inadvertently consume between 300 and 5,000 nanograms per kilogram of body weight per day (ng/kg-bw/day) of BPA and/or BPS (a nanogram is one-billionth of a gram). Therefore, workers could consume these chemicals in amounts that exceed the BPA limit set by the European Food Safety Authority of 4,000 ng/kg-bw/day, especially when taking into account that they encounter the chemicals in other ways outside their jobs. (The FDA’s limit is 50,000 — neither regulator has a determined a limit for BPS).