Cash register receipts issued by several major retailers -- Walmart, McDonalds, Safeway, even Whole Foods -- contain the controversial plastic chemical bisphenol A, adding to an increasing number of ways the substance comes in contact with the public, says an environmental advocacy group.
Bisphenol A, or BPA, has made headlines due to its frequent use in food and beverage packaging and its potential risk for causing cancer. The new study by the non-profit Environmental Working Group highlights BPA presence in many major retailers' store receipts and its likelihood to stick to the skin of people who handle them.
The study is the first to spotlight that most Americans get direct exposure to the chemical just by handling receipts. Even if consumers refrain from buying canned food and beverages, which have been repeatedly shown to contain BPA, they can hardly avoid touching BPA-contaminated store receipts.
Other U.S. businesses found to use contaminated receipts include CVS, KFC and the U.S. Postal Service. Their receipts accounted for 40% of the total number the EWG examined. Receipts free of the chemical were most likely to be given at Starbucks, Target, and Bank of America ATMs.
BPA finds its way onto receipts via the thermal paper that stores use to print them. It transfers readily from receipts to hands and can penetrate the skin to a depth that it can enter the bloodstream. Although scientists have not established how much of a receipt's BPA coating can transfer to the skin, and from there into the body, a separate Swiss study recently found that a person repeatedly touching thermal printed paper for 10 hours a day -- at a cash register, for instance -- may accumulate as much as 71 mg per day, a relatively safe amount.
However, if more than just the fingers touch the paper -- for example, if BPA moves from receipts onto fingers, then to food and into the mouth -- the exposure may approach passing the tolerable daily intake.
"BPA has been a concern of ours, other organizations and the public at large for at least a decade or so," said Alex Formuzis, a spokesman for the EWG. "While we maintain that the focus for policymakers should be removing BPA from food packaging first, we also want to show that BPA is used virtually in everything. BPA can even be used in a shopping bag, mixing with the produce you bought."
Linked to serious health problems such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and infertility, BPA is especially harmful to fetuses and infants because it can affect brain development. It is considered an endocrine disruptor, meaning it can imitate the function of hormones in the human body. Yet it is commonly present in the lining of baby formula cans, as well as almost all other canned groceries.
Since 60% of the receipts the EWG tested did not have significant levels of BPA, it is evident many retailers are already using alternatives. The leading U.S. thermal paper maker, Wisconsin-based Appleton Papers Inc., no longer incorporates BPA in any of its thermal products.
Earlier this month, an environmental group sued the Food and Drug Administration for failing to act on a citizen petition filed almost two years ago to ban the use of BPA in food packaging.
Although canned goods present a more immediate threat of contamination with BPA since their contents are eaten, the total mass of BPA on a receipt is 250 to 1,000 times greater than typically found in a can of food or leached by a BPA-laced plastic baby bottle.
The FDA is currently reviewing BPA and is expected to complete an updated safety assessment within the next two years. The National Institutes of Health has also committed $30 million to study the safety of the chemical.
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