The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

December 21, 2010

Washing Our Hands of BPA this Winter

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

BPA ban in a gift boxSenator 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

BPA in food cansNearly 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

thermal cash register receiptsSome 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

Seventh Generation recycled toilet paperBPA 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.

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Jennifer Webb
11 years ago

Thank you Beth for everything you do! Every since I read this posting over a year ago I have been on a mission to write to companies to see if their receipts contain BPA. Maybe my email will plant the seed for the company to not use receipts with BPA. Some companies are very responsive to my questions, some refuse to reply, and some respond, but don’t bother to actually answer my questions.

Thanks for teaching us something new everyday!

12 years ago

I work in a library that uses thermal paper for due date receipts. Besides handling the paper at work, I was using the receipts as bookmarks. But when I read I have a habit of holding and rubbing the bookmark…
Not any more. And no more recycling them.
I am so tired of being tripped up every time I try to do the right thing!
Thanks for spreading the word.

12 years ago

This information is great. Thank you so much for sharing this. I am new to plastic free living and this site is incredibe. I have disabling migraines and am looking into causes unknown for people. I may have hit the jackpot. Is there a way I can reach Rebecca who mentioned having migraines also for some information and support, please. I have a great story about the chemicals in plastic ruining the top on my newy refinished vanity. It will have to be refinished again because I set a plastic makeup bag on it for several days. That is what opened my eyes to the possibility of plastice poisoning and I am so exited to think it could be this simple and I could have a regular life again after 6 years!! Thank you! Peace.

12 years ago

Re: BPA and recycled toilet paper.
I recently purchased bamboo toilet paper- no bpa…good for the environment and no plastic packaging!!
GREAT company.—please check them out. I found them when shopping for diaper wipes (I use recycled cloth and water as much as I can, but for travel,etc I still use some packaged wipes). You can return the packaging back to them and they reuse it,

Ariana Web
12 years ago

The only problem I find with cutting down cans, things become so time consuming. Cooking things like beans becomes an overnight soaking thing instead of just popping them out of the can. We should definitely go fresh as much as possible, we have to take care of this planet.

green girl in wisconsin
12 years ago

A little fun fact about BPA in receipt paper–I’ve covered this over at EcoWomen and the primary producer of BPA -free receipt rolls is APPLETON (a paper company) who will begin inserting red fibers in it’s BPA-free rolls to help consumers identify it as such. Here’s the link:

12 years ago

It seems sometimes that every time you turn around, industry has found another place to put/hide/dispose of/apply needlessly its toxic chemicals. You can’t keep up. We seem to have no right to a non-toxic life anymore. It’s very troubling.

12 years ago

I had heard of BPA in receipts awhile ago but didn’t think much of it and forgot about it honestly until reading your post. And timely as it is, I have been working as a cashier at REI for the last few months, so reading this I was concerned. I immediately e-mailed REI and got a response back within a few hours. I thought you and your readers might be interested in the response:

“We have been aware of the possibility of BPA in register receipts for some time. It is our understanding that the co-op was among the first retailers in the country to work proactively to research its receipt paper supply chain and take action for a BPA-free solution for our employees, members and customers.
Since January 2010, our stores have been using BPA-free receipt paper. In addition, REI’s current receipt paper is FSC-certified, which supports our sustainable forestry goals to know the source of all paper fiber. We are also monitoring the collaborative EPA working group regarding this subject…

Megan Behrbaum, REI Public Affairs”

Makes me happy that they cared when I ignored the issue, and as an employee, I am really happy they care.

12 years ago

Almost forgot… I also eat almost all organic food now to reduce exposure to estrogen mimicking pesticides and herbicides…

just sayin’…

12 years ago

I first heard about estrogen mimicking chemicals (of which BPA is one) back in the mid-1990’s when I saw a documentary about it on our local independent PBS station. A huge lightbulb went off in my head since I have suffered from estrogen related migraines since I was in high school.

So I started making efforts to reduce my exposure, which included no plastics of any kind touching food (especially wet food and NEVER in the microwave) – I brought filtered water to work in a glass bottle and people thought I was NUTS! I reduced my use of detergents (as many of these contain other estrogen mimicking chemicals) and stopped using any sort of pesticide or herbicide in my yard (both huge sources of environmental estrogens). I also stopped using a hard plastic tooth guard that my dentist had me wear at night to stop me grinding my teeth and did relaxation exercises instead. The result… my daily morning headaches went away completely, and I went from having 5-6 migraines per month to 1-2.

I’ve recently cut out just about all canned foods (still can’t give up black olives), and I do everythign possible to avoid reciepts, and also avoid using cash. I’m now down to only 3-4 migraines per year, and they generally only last a day or two where they used to last 4-5 days.

I’ve never seen any documented evidence connecting BPA or environmental estrogens in general to migraines, but I’m a believer!

12 years ago

I had heard about bpa in receipts but I had thought Whole Foods would know better…shame on them. I’m not really sure why I thought that though (Shame on me too)…many of their store brand foods come in non-recyclable plastic packaging that contains who-knows-what plasticizers. Oh well. Live and learn.

12 years ago

I had NO IDEA about BPA in receipts. How alarming! :(

Kathy G
12 years ago

I had no clue! Thanks for the information.

12 years ago

“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?”

Well, as you rightly point out later, those are hardly the only two choices. But I suspect that most toilet paper does not come from *virgin* forests at all. I happen to live in an area with a lot of tree farms that are used for paper products, including the toilet paper I use. Now, I truly don’t know how using it ranks on the eco-scale, but I know that these forests haven’t been virgin in a long time. And, while I am aware of at least some of the environmental problems with having a paper mill close to where I grew up, I do also appreciate having tree farms nearby because while the trees are growing they freshen the air, provide beautiful scenery, provide habitat for animals (even if temporary), trap carbon, etc. And, while they are cut down, they are constantly being replanted.

So, as always, things are even more complicated. But regardless, I definitely am trying to reduce my BPA exposure. My husband and I have been switching to non-plastic versions of things as we are skeptical of BPA-free plastic — not just because it might still have BPA, but also because we wonder what the BPA is being replaced with in BPA-free plastic.

Kay Pere
12 years ago

So depressing. That’s all I can think to say. DuPont and other companies like them have been taking their own slogans much to seriously.

LInda Anderson
12 years ago

Great post! I have scheduled a post on BPA on receipts but I am going to postpone it for a couple of weeks – just to spread the warnings out. You did a good job, Beth. I will definitely link to your blog.

12 years ago

I stopped putting cash receipts into the recycle bin, because they are fouling the recycled paper stream and end up adding BPA to everything made with recycled paper. I started sharing with cashiers about the thermal paper; many are totally shocked to learn about BPA. Isn’t there a right to know law that requires, when you are exposed to on the job hazards, you have a right to know what these hazards are? Anyone touching thermal paper all day, airline reservations staff, car rental staff, cashiers, and others, should be aware of them and be sure to wash their hands before eating. Pregnant women should not be working in jobs that requires them to handle thermal paper all day.

Jennifer Kanehl
12 years ago

So, my receipts go into my purse, then home to a drawer (that the kids use, too). I need a new system of dealing with this POISON!!! Ugh! Thanks for the heads up!!!