Think Twice Next Time About Touching a Receipt with Your Bare Hands -- Your Unborn Child May Thank You for It
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If you're looking to avoid further hormonal freakouts brought on by the hated Bisphenol A (BPA) -- a frightening endocrine disruptor reportedly found in 96 percent of women but consumed more by their children, then you might want to clean out your wallet. Or perhaps forego shopping receipts altogether until you hear otherwise from conclusive scientific studies -- which could take many years to straggle in.
Two years ago, Canada became the first country to outright declare BPA, a controversially toxic compound for polycarbonate polymers and epoxy resins found in everyday plastics and other products, a toxic substance unsuitable for the First World. More recently, laggards like the European Union, the United States and more have banned it from baby bottles, but not everything else. That includes the thousands of point-of-sale thermal receipts ripped daily from cash registers, gas stations and other places too numerous to count, unless you're a scientist studying the toxicity of BPA or its less-known substitute Bisphenol S (BPS) in those receipts and resins.
It should be by now common knowledge that BPA secretes enough weak estrogen to influence serious developmental and neurological deformities and diseases, such as the congenital defect hypospadias, a freaky misplacement of the urethra now twice as common in newborn boys as before. What is not as well known is how much BPA and BPS is in thermal receipts. In the specific case of BPS, we're in the dark.
"There's not much known about BPS as an endocrine disruptor," Dr. Andrea Gore, a fellow at The Endocrine Society and professor of pharmacology and toxicology at University of Texas at Austin, told AlterNet. "It's being used as a BPA substitute, but it's been introduced into the environment without any biological testing. There are a couple of studies out there suggesting that BPS, similar to BPA, is a weak estrogen. Beyond that, little to nothing is known about its effects in the body."
One recent study, however, has ascertained that people, especially store employees who handle thermal receipts daily, may be absorbing almost 20 times more BPS through their skin than BPA when it was considered safe. Led by Dr. Kurunthachalam Kannan from New York State Department of Health's Wadsworth Center and published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, it analyzed thermal receipts from the U.S., Japan, Korea and Vietnam and found BPS in all of them. Kannan confirmed to AlterNet that there is concern that BPS is no safer than BPA, and that the former's rate of absorption relative to the latter is startling. He found the question of whether endocrine disruptors are not as recognized or regulated as they should be too broad, but found truth in the propositions that public awareness seems limited relative to the threat and that regulation is lagging behind the data made public so far.
"Our work is on the presence and use of a toxic chemical, not about toxicity itself," he told AlterNet. "But certainly it is concerning if a product containing a toxic compound is touched all the time."
Similar studies have echoed Kannan's measured concern, although they have somewhat dispensed with his critical distance. Published in 2010 in Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, "Transfer of Bisphenol A From Thermal Paper To the Skin" found that the toxic chemical was indeed transferred to dry fingers, ten times more so if they were wet or greasy. It also found indications that BPA can enter the skin to the point that it can't be washed off, and that people handling thermal paper daily for hours could, depending on the circumstances, encroach upon the margins of tolerable daily intake.
"On the printed side of the paper, BPA is present almost as a pure chemical," the study's co-author Koni Grob, analyst for Switzerland's Official Food Control Authority in Zurich, explained to AlterNet. "Working with such paper means constantly putting fingers into the chemical, which no chemist would ever do. At present uncertainty, as a pregnant woman, I would not accept touching BPA all day long."
Grob also explained that there is a broad debate about the toxicity of thermal receipts, and that the jury is still out on the scientific proof for our levels of exposure. But he warned that it is "most critical" to limit exposure to mothers and their foetusus, and that "it is up to scientists and authorities to resolve this problem. Scaring the public is useless and unfair."
But that is often where the science and common sense part company. Scaring the public, using the pretty solid science on BPA and emergent studies on BPS provided so far by Grob's "scientists and authorities" -- who have historically remained conservative in their assessments of the toxicity of everyday life -- is often what it takes to widen the public and professional dialogue and kickstart greater regulation of what are obviously dangerous chemicals. That they are in things we need -- and more often don't really need, like the majority of thermal receipts which could easily be electronically replaced -- is already a sign that their usage is far too ubiquitous. BPA's major route of exposure is diet, which means it's in our food and water, and in the things in which we store our food and water, together comprising a rather staggering amount of our toxic everyday life.
And the list of things that can go wrong because of too much exposure to BPA is a horror show, starring existential threats like cancer and diabetes to more sensational scares like genital and genetic deformities. On a good day, you probably don't really want to read how endocrine disruptors screw up your mind and body, but you probably should on any given day, and then tell a neighbor. Because science often needs a more primal mover than its own intellectual curiosity: According to Environmental Working Group senior analyst Sonya Lunder, science funded by the BPA industry says everything's fine, while those outside its influence say everything is actually rather scary.
"It is unclear how much BPA-coated receipts contribute to people's total exposure to the ubiquitous plastics chemical," Lunder explained in EWG's 2010 study "Synthetic estrogen BPA coats cash register receipts" co-authored with senior scientist David Andrews and senior vice-president for research Jane Houlihan. "What is certain, however, is that since many retail outlets already use BPA-free paper for their receipts, this is one source of contamination that could easily be eliminated completely."