Here's Why You Should Skip Your Next Receipt

March 28th 2015

Most Millennials have likely heard about the negative health effects of BPA. You may have ditched your Nalgene water bottle when you found out that the plastic contained the endocrine-disrupting chemical. If you're particularly cautious like me, you might even buy the more costly BPA-free cans of soup at your neighborhood grocery store (when you can afford them). But what about the receipt given after purchase? Ever wonder why the paper feels slightly powdery? 

The receipt coating is BPA, too. And the level of BPA on receipts is much higher than those found in the linings of canned food. Plus, the chemical isn't "fixed" like it is in plastics, making it even easier to absorb in this format -- and possibly worse. 

What is BPA anyway?

BPA, or bisphenol A, is a toxic substance that was first introduced in 1938 to mimic the female hormone estrogen. Since the 1950s, it has commonly been used in industrial settings -- either in the epoxy resins that line most of the 131 billion food cans made in the U.S. each year or more recently to make polycarbonate, the clear, shatter-resistant plastic found in many food and drink containers. It is also used in its "free" form to coat thermal paper to make it react with other chemicals in the presence of heat to develop the paper's ink. (More on this shortly.)

A synthetic estrogen, BPA has been shown to disrupt the endocrine system even in limited amounts. Studies have connected it to wide variety of things you don't want to get -- like breast and reproductive cancers, obesity, diabetes, infertility, resistance to chemotherapy treatments, and even anxiety and hyperactivity in children.

BPA is all over your receipts... and it's in your urine, too. 

We've known for more than a year that BPA in thermal paper is being absorbed through the skin. (Think: Receipts but also airplane and movie tickets and shipping labels.) According to a Feb. 2014 study, enough BPA is absorbed through the hands after two hours of directly touching store receipts to cause significantly elevated levels of the endocrine disrupter in our urine -- a rise from 1.8 micrograms per liter to 5.8 micrograms per liter. Handle those same receipts for eight hours, like a cashier might while working, and the BPA levels in your urine will increase to 11.1 micrograms per liter. That's an almost five-fold increase in a single work day.

Study author Dr. Shelley Ehrlich of Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center explained the risks and possible precautions in an interview with Newsweek.

"I'm a precautionary person, so I would say that women who are pregnant, of childbearing age, adolescents, other [vulnerable] people like that, they could consider some kind of protective gloves," Dr. Ehrlich said. "Anything that acts as a barrier [between the skin and the receipt] should be good." 

Ehrlich's team isn't the only scientific group to raise concerns over the BPA content of receipts, although they are the first to demonstrate that receipts cause a rise in BPA concentrations in our urine.

Eating French fries for science?

Another study released Oct. 2014 looked at what occurs when individuals used hand sanitizer, held receipts, and then ate a plate of French fries. Initially, it sounds like a research project that I'd like to be part of -- who doesn't like eating French fries for science? -- but the study's findings changed my mind.

Within 90 minutes, researchers found that a large amount of BPA had been absorbed into the volunteer subject's blood and urine. According to scientists, this demonstrates that BPA can quickly move through our skin and into our bloodstream, especially when facilitated by sanitizers, lotion, or other skin cream. 

"BPA from thermal papers will be absorbed by your blood rapidly; at those levels, many diseases such as diabetes and disorders such as obesity increase as well. Use of BPA or other similar chemicals that are being used to replace BPA in thermal paper pose a threat to human health," said study author Prof. Frederick vom Saal of the Univ. of Missouri.

On second thought, I'll pass on the fries. 

Many Americans, including newborns, have BPA in their system right now. 

Perhaps the prevalence of BPA-laden thermal paper is why CDC scientists suggest that more than 90 percent of Americans have BPA in their urine. More frightening is the 2009 Environmental Working Group report that nine-in-ten newborn infants tested were born with BPA already in their system. (The small study randomly sampled umbilical cord blood.)

As I dig through the crumpled pile of receipts in my wallet to find a WiFi code and then eat a croissant, I realize that most likely, I have BPA in my body. And you might, too. Almost everyone reading this article, in fact, potentially has BPA in their body. That can't be good. 

Why is BPA in receipts bad news? 

While BPA levels in a can of soup are usually 22 micrograms per liter, the average receipt contains more at 10 to 30 milligrams. Quantifying that, it means that your average retail store receipt will be 1 to 3 percent BPA by weight. 

Three percent may not sound like a lot, but all of the BPA found on receipts and other thermal paper products is chemically "free" -- or easy to rub off on other surfaces. BPA-containing cans and plastic containers are most dangerous when heated or as they age because BPA can leech out as they breakdown. Meanwhile, receipts don't require such action; thermal paper readily releases BPA powder onto unsuspecting consumers via simple direct contact, leading to absorption through the skin.

"This chemical has been used for decades, and it is shocking that the scale of this exposure has only just been identified," said Chemical Trust's Michael Warhurst.

More and more scientists call BPA's safety into question, but what about the EPA or the FDA?

BPA has increasingly come under scrutiny by the scientific community, but the FDA declined to ban BPA in 2012. Our main protection is the 1970s Toxic Substances Control Act, which is administered by the EPA. This fundamentally flawed bill allows manufacturers to introduce or begin using untested chemicals before knowing if they're safe, rather than requiring the obvious: Test first.

There is a history of legislative attempts to correct the broken regulatory process, led chiefly by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), but no one has been successful yet. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) are the latest to attempt legislating the chemical. They introduced a bill designed simply to label food packaging that contains BPA -- not ban it -- on March 20 of this year.  

Until Congress takes action, there are steps that you can take to protect yourself and the environment.

Vote for legislators that defend your safety by fighting for greater oversight of chemicals, and educate yourself about toxin regulations like the Toxic Substances Control Act. As long as federal policy is lagging, advocate for statewide bans -- like Maryland's SB 175, a possible ban on BPA in sales receipts in favor of safer alternatives. 

Don't recycle receipts or other thermal paper items. Sadly, receipts are a major source of BPA contamination of surface water. A draft EPA study lists short and long-term hazards to aquatic life from BPA as "high" on a five-point scale. Avoid recycling receipts in order to cut down on the mortality of wildlife from BPA contact and to limit our secondary exposure through water. (It will also help limit the amount of BPA in recycled paper products, which have a higher concentration of BPA than virgin paper goods due to receipt recycling.)

And perhaps most obviously, the next time a cashier asks, "Would you like a copy of your receipt?" know how to respond.

"If it's a receipt that I do need, I'll hold out my bag and ask the person to drop [it] into the bag so I don't have to touch it," suggests Prof. Cheryl S. Watson of the Univ. of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. And if you don't need your receipt, respond, "No, thank you!" You'll be saving yourself as well as the environment.