Sales receipts come with almost every purchase—every food order, gas pump, ATM transaction, and grocery store run. If you’re like me, they collect in your car, pockets, and purse. But receipts aren’t just added clutter in your life; they expose you to bisphenol A, a harmful chemical added to these slips of paper in order to produce color during the printing process.
We’ve known for a while that receipts contain BPA, but a recent study published in PLOS One is the first to show that hand lotions and other common substances we put on our skin can encourage absorption of the chemical. The research shows that people who applied hand sanitizer, held a receipt, and then ate French fries soaked up enough BPA to possibly harm their endocrine, digestive, and reproductive systems.
BPA is an endocrine disruptor, which means the chemical mimics hormones as well as blocks or exaggerates our bodies’ natural responses. Studies on how BPA affects humans show that exposure, even at low levels (think parts per trillion), can lead to obesity, cardiovascular disease, and reproductive issues. And lab experiments on rats and mice show that high levels in their bodies can lead to breast and prostate cancer.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, BPA can be detected in the urine of about 90 percent of Americans. The chemical is found in can liners and plastic packaging, where it can leach into food and drinks. The thing is, when someone swallows BPA, 99 percent of it breaks down during digestion. So the researchers thought it must be getting into our bodies in other ways. They took a closer look at the skin and inside the mouth.
The skin's outermost protective layer, the epidermis, is meant to keep harmful substances, such as microorganisms, UV light, and toxins out of our bodies. But certain chemicals found in personal care products, such as sunscreen, soap, and sanitizers, break down that natural armor, priming the skin to absorb the lotions more effectively. The problem with that, the researchers show, is the primed skin can draw in more BPA, too.
Even though the BPA on receipts is measured in mere milligrams, when we touch those cash register receipts—even for just a few seconds—the amount that rubs off onto our hands (and into our mouths if we’re eating) is astonishingly high, says study author Frederick vom Saal, a biological scientist at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Our intake levels are high enough to be in what he calls the “range that predicts all the diseases,” meaning we have enough of it in our bodies to lead to the cardiovascular, reproductive, and endocrine-disrupting problems researchers see in experiments.
To reduce our risk, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned companies from adding BPA to baby bottles and sippy cups in 2012, because babies’ body sizes and metabolism make them more susceptible to BPA. One study showed levels are 11 times higher in babies than in adults. But companies can still use it in other products. In fact, just last year, industries in the United States used 15 billion pounds of the stuff. (Full disclosure: NRDC, which publishes onEarth, petitioned the FDA in 2008 to remove BPA from food packaging. Four years and a lawsuit later, the agency rejected the ban.) In the absence of stricter federal action, 12 states have restricted the chemical’s use in recent years. Connecticut is the only state so far, however, to ban BPA in receipts.
On a national level, banning BPA-coated receipts would fall under the Environmental Protection Agency’s jurisdiction, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. Last year the agency published a report stating there are no chemical alternatives safer than BPA for use in the thermal paper of receipts (basically meaning that BPA substitutes, such as bisphenol S, are just as bad).
So should you panic? Eschew all lotions? Scream at your cashier to stop poisoning you? No. You can always opt not to take a receipt, or wash your hands if you do. This drastically reduces the amount your body absorbs. Oh, and don’t throw receipts in the recycling bin—not unless you want that BPA to rise again in the form of recycled paper. These solutions aren’t as convenient as a full-scale BPA ban would be, but currently they are the only ones in your hands.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.