- Thermal paper typically used for receipts contains the endocrine-disrupting chemical bisphenol-A (BPA)
- After handling receipts, BPA was found in all study participants’ urine and the concentration of BPA in the urine samples had increased as well
- Past research has shown that holding receipt paper for only five seconds was enough to transfer BPA onto your skin, and the amount of BPA transferred increased by about 10 times if fingers were wet or greasy
- Other common sources of BPA exposure include canned foods, soda cans, plastics (even some BPA-free plastics), and paper currency, which may be contaminated by receipts stored nearby (such as in your wallet)
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are similar in structure to natural sex hormones such as estrogen. By mimicking natural hormones, they have a number of adverse effects on both humans and wildlife, including developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune system damage.
One of the most talked about endocrine disrupters is bisphenol-A (BPA), a pervasive chemical used in plastics and the lining of canned goods. These are thought to be the two primary routes of exposure, but research is uncovering another route that has received little attention: thermal receipt paper.
Cash-Register Receipts Are an Overlooked Source of BPA Exposure
You probably don’t think twice about handling a cash-register receipt on your way out of the grocery store (or replacing that paper in the register if you work there). But you should.
Thermal paper has a coating that turns black when heat is applied (the printer in a cash register applies heat to the paper, allowing it to print numbers and letters). It also contains BPA, and research shows that handling this type of paper is enough to increase your bodily levels.
Though the amount of BPA transferred from a receipt may be small, think about how many times you handle receipts in any given week. It’s these frequent, small exposures that add up over time, significantly contributing to your body’s toxic load.
And for those who are most vulnerable to BPA’s toxic effects – pregnant women, infants, and children – handling receipts may pose an unnecessary risk that few are aware of.
Handling Receipts Increases Your Levels of BPA
Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health recruited 24 students and staff members to take part in the study. Considering the toxic nature of BPA on development, it was required that the participants were not pregnant.
They were then asked to handle receipts for two hours with their bare hands. Before this, 20 of the 24 participants had measurable levels of BPA in their urine. Afterward, BPA was found in all of the participants’ urine. The concentration of BPA in the urine samples increased as well.1
One week later, for the second part of the study, the participants handled receipts with gloves on, which led to no significant increase in BPA levels. The findings were clear enough that the researchers suggested cashiers and bank tellers may want to wear gloves if they handle receipts frequently.
This is especially important if they’re pregnant or of child-bearing age (nitrile gloves were used in the study; it’s not yet known if latex or other gloves will prevent BPA exposure).
BPA May Transfer to Your Skin After Holding a Receipt for Just 5 Seconds
Past research also suggests caution is warranted when handling receipts, even if you only hold them long enough to put in your wallet. A study in Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry found that of 13 thermal printing papers analyzed, 11 contained BPA.2
Holding the paper for just five seconds was enough to transfer BPA your person’s skin, and the amount of BPA transferred increased by about 10 times if fingers were wet or greasy (such as if you’ve just applied lotion or eaten greasy food).
Finally, because receipts are often stored next to paper currency in people’s wallets, paper currency may also be contaminated with BPA. In a study published in Environmental Science and Technology, researchers analyzed paper currencies from 21 countries for the presence of BPA, and the chemical was detected in every sample.3
They also measured the transfer of BPA from thermal receipt paper to currency by placing the two together in a wallet for 24 hours. This dramatically increased the concentrations of BPA on the money, which again suggests that handling receipts, and potentially paper currency, may increase your BPA levels.
Eating Canned Foods Is an Even Greater BPA Threat
While handling receipts was a definite source of BPA exposure, it “only” increased levels by about one-quarter of what would be expected from eating canned soup.4 BPA is commonly thought of as a plastics chemical, but it’s becoming clear that canned goods may be an even greater route of exposure than plastics.
According to one study, eating canned soup for five days increased study participants’ urinary concentrations of BPA by more than 1,000% compared to eating freshly made soup.5 For this reason, avoiding canned goods as much as possible is one of my topmost recommendations for avoiding exposure to this ubiquitous chemical toxin.
This is not to downplay the importance of avoiding BPA-containing plastics, of course, but ideally you should seek to avoid as many sources of BPA (and other endocrine disrupters) as possible. In terms of BPA, this includes avoiding:
- Canned foods and soda cans
- All BPA-containing plastics and food packaging
- Certain tooth sealants
- Certain BPA-free plastics (which can contain similar endocrine-disrupting chemicals)
- Receipts and currency (seek to limit or avoid carrying receipts in your wallet or purse, as it appears the chemical is transferring onto other surfaces it touches. It would also be wise to wash your hands after handling receipts and currency, and avoid handling them particularly if you’ve just put on lotion or have any other greasy substance on your hands, as this may increase your exposure)
‘ADA’ Plastics Chemical Found in Hundreds of US Foods
The reason why it’s so important to minimize your exposure to even low levels of environmental chemicals is because there are so many of them out there. BPA is just one. Another is azodicarbonamide (ADA), a chemical that recently made headlines after Subway announced it would remove ADA from its bread.
Azodicarbonamide is used as a dough conditioner and flour bleaching agent in commercial baking; it’s also used to improve elasticity in yoga mats, shoe rubber, and other materials, like synthetic leather. There is concern that azodicarbonamide might cause chronic diseases including cancer and, possibly, asthma and allergies, and some US consumer groups have called for it to be removed from foods.
While ADA is banned as a food additive in Australia and some European countries, a report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that it is used in close to 500 US foods, including breads, bagels, tortillas, hamburger and hot dog buns, pizza, pastries, and more made by name brands such as Pillsbury, Sara Lee, Shoprite, Safeway, Smucker’s, Fleischman’s, Jimmy Dean, Kroger, Little Debbie, Tyson, and Wonder.6
The World Health Organization has reported that ADA may increase the risk of respiratory problems and skin irritation in workers that handle the chemical and EWG points out that this is yet one more additive that has not been extensively tested to determine its health effects in humans. As EWG reported:7
“One thing is clear: ADA is not food, as food has been defined for most of human history. It is an industrial chemical added to bread for the convenience of industrial bakers. In centuries past, flour fresh from the mill had to age several months before it could be kneaded into dough and popped into the oven. But in 1956, a New Jersey chemical, pharmaceuticals and engineering firm called Wallace & Tiernan, best known for inventing a mass water chlorination process, discovered that ADA caused flour to ‘achiev[e] maturing action without long storage.'”
As further reported by EWG senior scientist David Andrews, Ph.D:8“ADA is just one example of an American food supply awash in chemical additives that can be mixed into foods with little oversight or safety review… Americans have regularly eaten this chemical along with hundreds of other questionable food additives for years.”
The ‘Dirty Dozen’ Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals
Many of you have heard of BPA, and some of you may now be familiar with ADA in bread. However, many common household goods, personal care products, and food and water are major sources of chemical exposure that can lead to an accumulation of toxicants in your body and cause hormone disruption. I certainly don’t expect you to memorize them all, however being aware of the most pervasive endocrine disrupters is the first step to minimizing your exposures. The EWG’s “dirty dozen” list for the 12 worst endocrine disruptors are the following.9 I’ve written about many of these in prior articles, so for more information about any particular one, please follow the links provided.
Bisphenol-A (BPA) Dioxin Atrazine Phthalates Perchlorate Fire retardants Lead Mercury Arsenic Perfluorinated chemicals(PFCs) Organophosphate pesticides Glycol ethers
19 Tips to Reduce Your Chemical Exposure
Implementing the following measures will help you avoid the worst endocrine-disrupting culprits as well as other chemicals from a wide variety of sources. To sum it up, try to stick with whole foods and natural products around your home. The fewer ingredients a product contains, the better, and try to make sure anything you put on or in your body – or use around your home – contains only substances you’re familiar with. If you can’t pronounce it, you probably don’t want it anywhere near your family.
- As much as possible, buy and eat organic produce and free-range, organic meats to reduce your exposure to added hormones, pesticides, and fertilizers. Also avoid milk and other dairy products that contain the genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST).
- Rather than eating conventional or farm-raised fish, which are often heavily contaminated with PCBs and mercury, supplement with a high-quality purified krill oil, or eat fish that is wild-caught and lab tested for purity. Wild-caught Alaskan salmon is about the only fish I eat for these reasons.
- Buy products that come in glass containers rather than plastic or canned, since chemicals can leach out of plastics and into the contents.
- Store your food and beverages in glass rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap.
- Use glass baby bottles and BPA-free sippy cups for your little ones. Some manufacturers have even moved to glass, since BPA-free products may contain other toxic bisphenols.
- Eat mostly raw, fresh foods. Processed, prepackaged foods (of all kinds) are a common source of chemicals such as bisphenols (e.g. BPA and BPS) and phthalates.
- Replace your non-stick pots and pans with ceramic or glass cookware.
- Filter your tap water—both for drinking and bathing. If you can only afford to do one, filtering your bathing water may be more important, as your skin absorbs contaminants. To remove the endocrine-disrupting herbicide Atrazine, make sure the filter is certified to remove it. According to the EWG, perchlorate can be filtered out using a reverse osmosis filter.
- Look for products that are made by companies that are earth-friendly, animal-friendly, green, non-toxic, and/or 100% organic. This applies to everything from food and personal care products to building materials, carpeting, paint, baby items, upholstery, and more.
- Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to remove house dust, which is often contaminated with traces of chemicals.
- When buying new products such as furniture, mattresses, or carpet padding, ask what type of fire retardant it contains. Be mindful of and/or avoid items containing PBDEs, antimony, formaldehyde, boric acid, and other brominated chemicals. As you replace these toxic items around your home, select those that contain naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool, and cotton.
- Avoid stain- and water-resistant clothing, furniture, and carpets to avoid perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).
- Make sure your baby’s toys are BPA-free, such as pacifiers, teething rings, and anything your child may be prone to suck on.
- Only use natural cleaning products in your home or make your own. Avoid products that contain 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME)—two toxic glycol ethers that can damage fertility and cause fetal harm.10
- Switch over to organic brands of toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants, and cosmetics. Remember, you can replace many different products with coconut oil and baking soda, for example. The Environmental Working Group has a great database11 to help you find personal care products that are free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals. I also offer one of the highest quality organic skin care lines, shampoo and conditioner, and body butter that are completely natural and safe.
- Replace feminine hygiene products like tampons and sanitary pads with safer alternatives.
- Avoid artificial air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softeners, or other synthetic fragrances.
- Look for products that are fragrance-free. One artificial fragrance can contain hundreds — even thousands — of potentially toxic chemicals.
- Replace your vinyl shower curtain with one made of fabric.