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Toxic assets: Easily transferable form of BPA found on dollar bills as well as on receipts, study finds

Dollar bills as well as cashier receipts — including ones taken from stores and wallets in Minnesota — contain significant amounts of easily transferable bisphenol A (BPA), according to a new study.

This finding raises concern, especially given other recent research that found BPA passes readily through the skin. Indeed, some 93 percent of Americans carry BPA in their bodies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

BPA is a chemical compound used to make certain plastics and resins (including those that line many metal-based food and beverage cans). Identified in laboratory studies as a hormone disruptor, BPA has been linked, mostly in animal studies, to a variety of medical conditions and brain-development problems, including cancer, diabetes, obesity, early puberty, enlarged prostate glands, learning disabilities, hyperactivity and aggression. Its use in baby products has been banned in both the European Union and Canada (where it’s been declared a toxic substance). Here in the United States, many companies have voluntarily removed BPA from their baby products in response to consumer concerns.

But BPA remains in many other everyday items, including the thermal paper commonly used in the United States for cash register receipts, as three studies recently reported. This new study, conducted by the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, confirms those earlier findings about receipts. It also reveals that the chemical is getting onto dollar bills, perhaps when receipts are stashed into wallets.

The BPA on cash-register receipts isn’t bound to the paper in any way, and therefore rubs off easily on hands — and, apparently, onto money it comes into contact with.

“This is a new exposure that people aren’t aware of,” said Kathleen Schuler, co-director of the Healthy Legacy project at the St. Paul-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, in an interview Tuesday. IATP is one of more than 250 environmental, parent, business and governmental groups that make up the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition.

We may be getting greater exposure to BPA through thermal receipts than through plastic products, she added. “BPA in plastic leaches out when it’s heated or when hot liquid is used. This is just lying on the paper,” Schuler explained.

Collected from 22 retailers
For their study, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families collected and tested cash-register receipts from 22 retailers in 10 states and Washington, D.C. Two retailers in Minnesota, Cub Foods and Target, were included.

Laboratory tests showed that there were large quantities of BPA — up to 2.2 percent of the receipt’s total weight — in 11 of the 22 receipts, including in the one from Cub Foods. No detectable level of the chemical was found on the Target receipt.

The study then tested how easily the BPA transfers from the receipts to human skin. Just holding a receipt for 10 seconds transferred up to 2.5 milligrams. Crumpling and rubbing the receipts deposited as much as 15 times that amount onto the skin.

This is a concern. For, as reported in Science News this week, French researchers have recently found that BPA can pass easily through the skin and into the body.

Next, the Safer Chemical, Healthy Families researchers looked at whether the BPA on the receipts could transfer to paper currency. They tested 22 dollar bills and found BPA on 21 of them. (The one without BPA appeared to be a newly issued bill.)

The levels of BPA found on the dollar bills were lower than that found on the receipts. But “the level isn’t the point,” said Schuler. “The point is that bisphenol A is there, and it shouldn’t be there.”

Until now, many health officials had assumed that the BPA found in most people had been ingested through BPA-tainted food containers.

What you can do
Schuler has several tips for individuals who wish to avoid getting BPA on their skin:

  • Choose not to take a receipt.
  • Put receipts in a separate envelope or container — not in your wallet.
  • Keep receipts and paper money away from young children.
  • Wash your hands after handling receipts, but don’t use a hand sanitizer, which can actually increase your exposure to the BPA.

Schuler also encourages consumers to contact their Congressional representatives. The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition is urging Congress to pass a new federal chemical policy.Two pieces of legislation — the Safe Chemicals Act in the Senate and the (slightly tougher) Toxic Chemicals Safety Act in the House — have been languishing for months.

“Obviously, we have a more challenging situation in Congress right now,” said Schuler. “But I really believe that there is momentum for passing safer ways of regulating chemicals.”

You can read the coalition’s full report, “On the Money: BPA on Dollar Bills and Receipts,” here [PDF].

Update:

I've received this e-mail from Daniel Koska, a spokesperson for Appleton Papers, the Wisconsin company that is North America's largest supplier of thermal receipt paper:

"Appleton supplies more than 50% of the receipt paper used in this country, and has exclusively produced BPA-free thermal paper since 2006. Currently, Appleton is the only thermal receipt paper manufacturer to have stopped using BPA in their products.  In addition, Appleton recently started placing small, visible red fibers in all their thermal paper products to indicate to consumers that their receipt is BPA free. ... Appleton has long been cognizant of the danger BPA presents to consumers, and have done their part to eliminate from thermal receipt paper." 

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Comments (3)

Is this the plastic coating that was added to receipts sometime since the 1970s, that makes ballpoint pens appear to run out because they can't write on it? Sounds like zero progress.

I increasingly appreciate this column, although I usually don't post my appreciation, as it alerts me to health risks and medical information that I would otherwise have not known. As with many other articles in MinnPost however, the abysmal lack of proofreading spoils what should be an enjoyable experience. (How do you spell "transferable"?)

Susan L.: I don't know the answer to your question, but I believe the report said thermal paper has been around for 50 years.

Sue H.: Both spellings are accepted, although the one you prefer is probably most common. I've changed the spelling in the story to yours so as not to distract other readers.

Thanks for your kind words about the column (and your diligent copyediting).