COLUMBIA — Would you like your receipt?
You might want to think twice about saying yes next time you're out to dinner or topping off your gas tank.
Research performed in an MU lab has found some receipts can leave bisphenol-A on your skin. BPA is an industrial chemical that has been used in plastic bottles and the plastic liners in metal food and beverage cans since the 1960s, according to the Food and Drug Administration. It is also used to coat a common type of thermal receipt that changes color when exposed to heat.
Bisphenol-A is a chemical derived from petroleum that mimics the sex hormone estrogen, MU biology professor Fred vom Saal said.
In January, the FDA shifted its stance on the safety of BPA and said it had “some concern” after lab studies showed low doses of BPA had negative health effects on laboratory animals. The administration decided to take steps to reduce human exposure to BPA after research showed BPA could have negative effects on the brain, behavior and prostate gland, especially in fetuses, infants and young children.
BPA found in store receipts
The Environmental Working Group in Washington commissioned the tests at MU's lab, which found high levels of BPA on 40 percent of receipts tested.
The group collected receipts and found “high concentrations of BPA” from businesses and services including McDonald’s, KFC, Walmart and the Postal Service.
The lab did not find BPA in receipts collected from Target, Starbucks or Bank of America ATMs.
The Environmental Working Group said the lab's findings are not only cause for alarm for shoppers, but for retail workers, as well.
“A typical employee at any large retailer who runs the register could handle hundreds of the contaminated receipts in a single day at work,” Jane Houlihan, EWG senior vice president for research, said in a news release.
CDC scientists measured BPA in participants of its National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and found BPA in nearly all the participants.
Vom Saal tested the receipts in his lab at MU where he has studied BPA since 1995.
He said BPA is similar to a steroid, and steroids are often applied to humans through the skin. He said his lab hopes to determine whether BPA can be absorbed through the skin.
A Swiss study found BPA transfers to the skin when touched and can penetrate the skin too deeply to be wiped off.
"You're getting a massive amount of BPA in receipts," Vom Saal said.
He compared the BPA coating on a receipt to a piece of paper coated in talcum powder; it easily gets on skin when touched.
But he warned there is no way to tell if a receipt contains BPA just by looking at it.
BPA is released in different ways from plastics and papers, he said. As plastic ages, it gradually releases free BPA. On receipts, the BPA is "free" — that is, not bonded and easily transferable — from the start.
The Environmental Working Group said the total mass of free BPA on a receipt is 250 to 1,000 times greater than the amount found in a can of food or baby formula.
Vom Saal said recycled paper can also contain BPA if it was made with paper coated with BPA. He noted that Japanese corporations removed BPA from their paper 10 years ago.
Some companies ditching it
Appleton, the largest manufacturer of thermal paper in North America, stopped using BPA in 2006.
“After reviewing toxicology reports and available studies, we concluded that removing BPA was the responsible thing to do,” said Bill Van Den Brandt, manager of corporate communications. He said the company changed the chemistry of its paper and called it a “straightforward process.”
The Postal Service has purchased BPA-free paper since September 2009. Spokeswoman Valerie Hughes said the Postal Service doesn’t have any paper with BPA in its central inventory but said individual post offices could still be using old paper.
Kentucky Fried Chicken has asked its suppliers to remove BPA from its products, KFC Spokesman Rick Maynard said.
McDonald’s is taking a different approach. Communications supervisor Ashlee Yingling said BPA is widely used and approved for use in the U.S., so the company is continuing to use it. A news release said McDonald’s will "continue to monitor" the issue. Yingling would not say if McDonald’s would change the type of receipt it uses.
Government response to BPA
Governmental agencies are working to reduce the amount of BPA used and to learn more about its effects on people's health.
The Environmental Protection Agency has created a partnership to help reduce the environmental release of BPA. The first part of the program is focusing on finding safer alternatives to BPA in thermal paper.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is spending $30 million on research into the health effects with $14 million of that coming from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.