Most people might find it hard to believe that simply taking a receipt from the cash register on a shopping trip could be a hazard to their health – but it can be. At the gas station, grocery store, shopping mall, ATM … those receipts are everywhere. And that restaurant bill that comes to your table after your meal? Yep, that one too. This is because most all receipts are printed on thermal paper which is coated with the endocrine-disrupting chemical bisphenol-A or BPA, and it can get absorbed through the skin on our fingers (or ingested if you use your BPA-coated fingers to pick up food you’re eating).
Here’s the study that really convinced me that we should be trying to avoid touching those receipts: According to a study published in JAMA in October 2014, people who handle receipts often (like cashiers) have elevated levels of BPA in their urine — proving that it does enter the body this way.
The study looked at BPA in individuals’ urine levels both before and after two hours of continuously handling receipts. Initially, everyone handled the receipts without wearing gloves. Two hours after touching the receipts without gloves, the BPA levels in the participants’ urine was significantly elevated, rising from 1.8 micrograms of BPA per liter to 5.8 micrograms per liter. After 8 hours, the study authors tested some of the gloveless participants again, and found that the BPA levels went up to 11.1 micrograms per liter, an almost five-fold increase. In the second part of the experiment (a week later), half of the participants handled receipts again, but this time they wore gloves. The participants who wore gloves had no significant increase of BPA in their urine, confirming that the route of exposure was through the skin. In other words, if you touch those thermal receipts you are getting a dose of BPA.
So why is this a problem? BPA is a chemical that the National Toxicology Program, after reviewing the research in 2008 (there is even more now!), deemed worthy of “some concern for effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures”.
BPA mimics human estrogen in the body, and has been shown to “disrupt” the body’s hormone, or endocrine, system. Studies link BPA to breast cancer, diabetes and obesity, hypertension, as well as hormone abnormalities and asthma in children. One study from the CDC found that more than 90 percent of Americans have some level of it in their urine. And the BPA on thermal receipts is particularly problematic because it is a loose powder on the receipts, so it can easily be transferred to us.
While some people might think that worrying about receipts is going overboard, since it’s so easy to make a few simple changes to reduce our exposure to them, why not take all precautions? And this is especially important for women who are pregnant or thinking about having children and for children and adolescents whose still-developing bodies don’t need those pernicious hormonal disruptors. Studies suggest prenatal and early life exposure to BPA poses the greatest potential health risks. AND, with respect to endocrine-disrupting chemicals like BPA, low doses are actually very problematic.
Luckily many forward-thinking and health-conscious stores are moving to BPA-free receipts – I know that Whole Foods in Los Angeles is one place that has started using BPA-free receipts (you can tell that they are BPA-free because they are yellow and actually made with a Vitamin C coating). BUT, these are still the minority and we’re a long way from getting rid of the thermal BPA-coated ones.
So how can you protect yourself and your family in the meantime?
1. Keep your receipts in a sealed plastic ziploc bag rather than loose in your wallet, purse or shopping bag. I keep a plastic ziploc bag in my purse to hold receipts so that their BPA-coating doesn’t get all over everything else in my purse. (The coating can easily rub off on other items.) When I get home I just dump the baggie into a little receipt folder I have so that I can go through them when the credit card bill comes…. AND, when the credit card bill comes, I actually take out a pair of cheap latex gloves to handle the receipts. Once I check them off, I immediately toss them. Simple, easy and BPA free.
2. Decline your receipts. I like to have my receipts to check off later, but if you don’t need it or want it, then just leave it. And for the receipts that you don’t need to save to return items etc., you can always keep a running list of the amounts you spend (just keep a piece of paper and pen or pencil in your purse or wallet and jot down the retailer and amount each time you spend).
3. If the store, restaurant etc. offers the option of having your receipt emailed to you, definitely go for that!
4. Definitely don’t place receipts in bags with food items, especially items you eat raw, and try to avoid putting receipts on food trays if you go to a food court or cafeteria (you don’t want it anywhere near the things you will be eating or putting in your mouth).
4. If you do touch your receipts, just wash your hands off with soap and water (not hand sanitizer! See #5) as soon as you can, especially before cooking or eating, and don’t touch your food or your face before you do.
5. And don’t use hand sanitizer before or after touching receipts because they increase the skin’s absorption of BPA! A 2010 study found that using alcohol-based hand cleaners after handling receipts increased the skin’s BPA absorption, and a study published in October 2014 in the journal PLOS ONE found that BPA is absorbed more quickly and extensively when people apply hand sanitizers before handling receipts (when people handled BPA-coated receipts after sanitizing their hands, they got a rapid spike of BPA in their bloodstream). The author of the study explains that this is because hand sanitizers (as well as other cosmetic products like hand lotions) contain chemicals the make the skin more permeable to various substances, including BPA. The study found that hand sanitizers could increase the absorption of BPA into the body by a factor of 100 or more!! (The scientists also tested what happened when subjects used Purell, handled receipts and subsequently ate french fries — something they saw happening in real-world fast-food restaurants — and found that just an hour and a half later, blood levels of BPA in some people had elevated more than ten times what they originally were!)
So I say, play it safe and don’t touch those thermal receipts!