These days, every piece of paper from both green-minded or greenwashing companies seems to have that cumbersomely long yet necessary tagline — “printed on 100% post-consumer recycled fiber with vegetable-based inks” — or some version there of. I predict that tagline is going to get even longer — especially for cash register receipts.
I predict that “BPA-free” will soon be included in there somewhere. Why? Many of those receipts are covered in BPA, aka bisphenol-A, an endocrine disruptor linked to cancer, reproductive problems, and lots of other ills.
The fact that BPA coats many receipts isn’t brand-new news. Last October, John C. Warner, an organic chemist who used to work for Polaroid, got widespread coverage with his revelation that many receipts contain not just a little, but a lot of BPA. However, Warner wasn’t interested in publishing his data, citing lack of resources in addition to a dedication to “not preaching about the bad but about diligently trying to invent the good.”
So Environmental Working Group (EWG) stepped in. This green health nonprofit is also about inventing the good — but often goes about said invention by preaching about the bad. Today, EWG released a report showing not only how much BPA is on these cash receipts, but which companies are giving out the most tainted receipts.
Ready for the bad news? If you guessed that McDonald’s and KFC serve up BPA alongside their unhealthy monstrosities, you are correct:
The receipt for a McDonald’s Happy Meal purchased in Clinton, Conn., on April 21, 2010, had an estimated 13 milligrams of BPA. That equals the amount of BPA in 126 cans of Chef Boyardee Overstuffed Beef Ravioli in Hearty Tomato & Meat Sauce, one of the products with the highest concentrations of BPA in EWG’s 2007 tests of canned foods.
Now, although the BPA content of these receipts are much higher than in canned foods and bottles, EWG says the risk of BPA exposure is unlikely to be proportionally higher for receipts.
“The amount of BPA that enters the body after a person handles a receipt is unknown but likely a fraction of the total BPA on the paper.” Still, EWG cites a July study with the Official Food Control Authority of the Canton of Zürich in Switzerland, which found that BPA from receipts can be absorbed into the skin. “This raises the possibility that the chemical infiltrates the skin’s lower layers to enter the bloodstream directly.” And of course, if you lick your fingers or handle food after touching receipts, you could be putting BPA into your food.
What’s a BPA-avoidant person who has already banned the can and gotten a BPA-free reusable bottle to do? EWG recommends declining receipts whenever you can, washing hands before eating, storing receipts separately, and not using alcohol-based hand cleaners after handling receipts. But the receipts pose a seriously pesky problem that infiltrates all areas of life. If you buy a magazine at a bookstore, will you remember to wash your hands before, say, licking a finger to turn a page?
There is a little good news: Target, Starbucks, Bank of America ATMs and — in case Barbara Boxer’s reading this post — the U.S. Senate cafeteria, all give BPA-free receipts. And hopefully, as this BPA receipt issue gains traction, more companies will switch to BPA-free receipts. Because while EWG points out that the “U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has initiated a program to evaluate the safety and availability of alternatives to BPA in thermal paper,” it’s unclear how long this evaluation — let alone actual enforcement of new anti-BPA laws — will take.
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