Bisphenol-A (BPA) is not just a worrisome chemical in hard plastic water bottles, baby bottles, and sippy cups. Almost all canned foods are full of the stuff. And our biggest source of exposure could be the thermal paper cash register receipts we handle every time we shop, especially during the holiday season. The fact is that BPA is in a lot of surprising products we touch every day and at higher levels than we previously thought. Will our government protect us from this chemical? Or must we as consumers take matters into our own hands?
Keeping BPA out of children’s bottles, toys, cups, & dishes
Senator Diane Feinstein hoped to give a nice present to U.S. kids this year. She planned to introduce an amendment to the Food Safety Modernization Act that would have banned the use of BPA (a hormone-disrupting chemical linked to cancer and birth defects) in baby bottles and sippy cups, and she worked for months on a compromise measure that members of both parties could support.
Unfortunately, Feinstein didn’t get far. The American Chemistry Council (the primary lobbying group for the chemical industry) made a last-minute push against the measure, just as it has against legislation banning phthalates, plastic bags, and other harmful products, and blocked the amendment before it reached the Senate floor. Bah humbug, kids.
Once again, consumers are left to protect ourselves from toxic chemicals when our government fails to. As Feinstein wrote in her Huffington Post piece last month
I’m not going to give up, and neither should consumers. Just because chemical industry lobbyists blocked a vote on BPA doesn’t mean you can’t vote with your wallet every time you purchase a product. The chemical industry doesn’t want you to know about companies that are already phasing out BPA or are searching for alternatives. But those companies are out there and deserve our support.
Protect yourself: Opt for non-plastic children’s toys, bottles, and food ware whenever possible since even BPA-free plastic may contain other harmful chemicals.
BPA in metal food and beverage cans
Nearly all food and beverage cans (whether they contain vegetables, fruits, tomatoes, tuna fish, meats, or sodas) are lined with BPA, and according to The National Work Group for Safe Markets’s recent No Silver Lining (PDF), worrisome levels of the chemical were found in every kind of metal can the group tested, whether organic brands or conventional, new cans off the grocery store shelf or those that had been sitting in home pantries for a while.
Protect yourself: Opt for fresh fruits and vegetables when possible rather than processed. Eating primarily local foods in season can reduce the need for canned foods. Choose glass jars and bottles rather than metal or plastic. When necessary, opt for one of the few brands that has switched to a non-BPA can lining. Eden Organics packages its beans (but not its tomatoes) in BPA-free cans. Muir Glen has plans to get the BPA out of its tomato products. And Trader Joe’s has similar plans for its canned foods, although they are not yet stating which of their products is BPA-free.
But be aware that all cans necessarily contain some kind of liner to keep the metal from corroding, and whether or not the alternative liners turn out to be safer in the long run than BPA liners is not yet known. Limiting exposure to processed foods, in general, is always a good idea.
BPA-Coated Cash Register and Credit Card Receipts
Some of us may be exposed to more BPA from the thermal paper receipts we touch than from foods and beverages. Unlike the BPA bound up in hard plastics and epoxy linings that can leach into our foods and beverages, BPA is applied to thermal paper as a powder coating that can easily rub off. According to chemist John C. Warner in an article in ScienceNews last year,
When people talk about polycarbonate bottles, they talk about nanogram quantities of BPA [leaching out]…. The average cash register receipt that’s out there and uses the BPA technology will have 60 to 100 milligrams of free BPA.
But not all receipts contain BPA. In a study this year, the Environmental Working Group found high levels of BPA on 40 percent of receipts sampled from “major U.S. businesses and services, including outlets of McDonald’s, CVS, KFC, Whole Foods, WalMart, Safeway and the U.S. Postal Service.” But receipts from Target, Starbucks, Bank of America ATMs and others were BPA-free or contained only trace amounts. Unfortunately, receipt paper doesn’t come with a BPA-free label, so how can a consumer tell the difference?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently conducting an alternatives assessment to help identify safer substitutes for bisphenol A (BPA) in the manufacture of thermal paper. So far, they’ve come up with a list of other chemicals that could be used in place of BPA and will be conducting analyses to determine if any of them are safer. I’ve looked at it. To my untrained eyes, the alternatives seem pretty scary too. So what can we do?
Protect yourself: The Apple Store has an electronic receipt system in place for customers who opt to receive a receipt via email rather than paper, and companies like Alletronic are developing new paperless receipt systems. But until those systems are ubiquitous, we can reduce our BPA exposure by refusing cash register, credit card, and ATM receipts when possible. My personal rule is to only take a receipt when there’s a chance I’ll need to return the item. I tell the cashier ahead of time that I won’t need one. And I skip receipts at restaurants (I’ve already eaten the meal!) and for most small purchases. Noting ATM transactions in a checkbook or electronic device can reduce the need for those receipts. And making fewer trips to the store will mean fewer receipts in general.
But sometimes receipts are necessary. In its BPA tip sheet, the organization Safer Chemicals: Healthy Families recommends washing your hands after handling thermal paper receipts and not allowing children to handle them at all. However, according to EWG, “a study published July 11 by scientists with the Official Food Control Authority of the Canton of Zürich in Switzerland found that BPA transfers readily from receipts to skin and can penetrate the skin to such a depth that it cannot be washed off.” So reducing the number of receipts we handle in the first place is more effective than hand washing after the fact.
BPA on Money and in Recycled Paper
BPA receipts not only affect us directly, but they spread BPA to other aspects of our lives. A Safer States study found BPA on 21 out of 22 dollar bills it tested, presumably the result of contact with thermal receipts. And when tossed in with regular paper waste, thermal paper receipts contaminate the recycling stream as well. Sadly, a Dresden University study (PDF) found BPA in recycled toilet paper, with thermal paper considered to be the culprit.
Protect Yourself: First, do not put thermal paper in the recycle bin. Throw it in the garbage. After that, the question of whether to use recycled paper is tricky. Which is worse? Cutting down virgin forests to wipe our butts? Or exposing ourselves to the small amounts of BPA found in recycled toilet paper? I posed this question to Mia Davis, BPA Coordinator for Clean Water Action, who said that while it’s important to consider our aggregate exposure to toxic chemicals like BPA, we must not lose sight of the bigger picture. Our forests are crucial for sequestering carbon to stave off global climate change. She personally still uses recycled toilet paper, and so do I. Of course, you can avoid the issue altogether by installing a bidet, rinsing with a pitcher of water as is done in Indian bathrooms, or switching to “family cloth.” And cutting your consumption of disposable paper products in general (paper towels, facial tissue, etc.) will help conserve resources and reduce exposure to BPA in recycled paper.
BPA is Everywhere
The primary market for the chemical BPA is the production of polycarbonate (PC) plastic, hard plastic like those infamous water bottles, baby bottles, and sippy cups are made from. But according to ICIS market data, applications like those account for only about 3% of demand for polycarbonate. Most PC is used for automotive components and in architectural, security and transportation applications. CDs and DVDs are made from polycarbonate, as are most of our eyeglasses. Now, we’re probably not going around licking our CDs or car windows or eyeglasses (although apparently, some people do) and the BPA in those products is not going to rub off on our hands like it does from thermal paper. But the point is that enormous amounts of BPA are produced, and according to the EPA, 1 million pounds are released into the environment each year.
Protect Yourself: Reducing our personal consumption of BPA-containing consumer products like CDs and DVDs might have a minuscule direct effect on our own health, but it helps reduce the demand for this toxic chemical in the first place. More important, we must support our legislators in demanding accountability from the chemical industry and protecting citizens from toxic chemicals before they are put into use. The American Chemistry Council may have won the battle in the Senate last month, but we can’t let them win the war.