Is BPA on Thermal Paper A Health Risk?

By Sandra Curtis

If you haven’t heard yet that the chemical BPA in cash register receipts and credit/debit machines can be a health risk, you might want to know a few facts. New research shows that this chemical, which is a known endocrine disruptor, can be absorbed through your skin.

Bisphenol A (BPA) has been banned for use in baby bottles and sippy cups. Some manufacturers have also removed it from water bottles and food containers. However, the thermal paper used for cash register and other receipts is another common source of BPA. Handling the paper leads to increased levels of the chemical in our bodies because it rubs off easily.

“There’s more BPA in a single thermal paper receipt than the total amount that would leach out from a polycarbonate water bottle used for many years,” said John Warner, Ph.D., president of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry.

Research has linked BPA to an increased risk of breast and prostate cancers, cardiovascular disease, and reproductive and brain development abnormalities. Because it mimics the biological activity of estrogen, developing children face the greatest risks from BPA.

A chronically high estrogen level disrupts the male and female reproductive and endocrine systems. BPA has been found in well over 90 percent of American adults and children. High levels are associated with altered thyroid function, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, impaired liver and kidney function, inflammation, hyperactivity, and impaired learning. In men, such levels have been linked to reduced libido, lower sperm quality, and altered sex-hormone concentrations. And in women, these levels have been tied to reproductive effects such as polycystic ovary syndrome, infertility, miscarriage, premature delivery, and an increased risk of breast cancer. Women may be especially vulnerable to the BPA in receipts.

Even if you’re not a cashier, you still may be getting more BPA exposure than you realize because thermal paper is used in so many receipts we handle – everything from airline boarding passes and luggage tags, to trains, movies, sporting events and amusement parks tickets, even labels on prescription bottles or packaged deli meats or cheeses.

Here’s a quick test to tell you if the paper you’re handling is the thermal type containing BPA: scratch the printed side of the paper. If you see a dark mark, the paper is thermal.

While some manufacturers make “BPA free” thermal paper, they often use a similar chemical (BPS), which also may pose health hazards similar to BPA. Both are easily transferred to skin. These bisphenols are easily absorbed through the skin because skin the molecule is smaller than estradiol — a natural estrogen — that is sometimes delivered by a skin patch.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has information about BPA, offering advice on how to reduce exposure. However, it doesn’t not mention store receipts.

So what should you do to reduce your exposure? 

  • Be aware that thermal paper discolors easily when scratched with a coin or paperclip.
  • Don’t accept receipts whenever possible.
  • Go with a paperless receipt via email or text message. This is an increasingly available option at many retailers. 
  • If you must handle a receipt, try to touch only the nonglossy backside. It contains much less BPA.
  • Carefully store receipts. If you absolutely need a receipt, place it in an envelope. Its BPA will rub off on everything: your hands, pocket, wallet, or purse, even the folding money in your wallet.
  • Quickly wash your hands after touching a receipt. Scrub with soap and water. If you wait longer than four minutes, it’s too late.
  • Wear latex gloves if your job requires the frequent handling of receipts.
  • Don’t use a hand sanitizer after touching a possible thermal receipt.
    • In a recent experiment, Dr. vom Saal and his team demonstrated that BPA levels went up to 185 times higher, “an absolute monster effect,” after the use of skin products such as hand sanitizers, sunscreens, and moisturizers. These products often contain chemicals called “dermal penetration enhancers” that break down the skin’s protective barrier to enhance delivery of the products’ active ingredients.

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