Personal Health

The Unexpected Health Risk That's Probably Hiding in Your Coat Pocket Right Now

Those cash register receipts we're constantly grabbing are coated with toxic chemicals.

Photo Credit: OlgaLis/Shutterstock

Taking a receipt from a cashier, ATM or gas station seems like a benign activity. We don't give it much thought as we tuck the receipt in a pocket or purse. But each time you touch those receipts, you may be exposed to harmful chemicals, since many receipts have a coating of Bisphenol-A (BPA) or Bisphenol S (BPS), chemicals that may be harmful to our health.

Retailers like Trader Joe’s are stepping up to phase out these unnecessary toxic chemicals in receipts, yet others like TJ Maxx and Meijer, a Midwest superstore chain, have yet to take action.

BPS is not a safer alternative

BPA is banned in baby bottles and sippy cups because it’s a known hormone disruptor. It is linked to female and male infertility, early puberty, breast and prostate cancers, as well as metabolic disorders. BPA has also been voluntarily removed from some reusable water bottles and food can linings. However, this dangerous chemical is still used as the color developer in thermal receipt printers.

As many manufacturers move away from BPA (eager to be able to label their products as “BPA-free”), some have jumped out of the chemical frying pan and into the fire. The easiest chemical with which to replace BPA is its chemical cousin, BPS. BPA and BPS are phenols. Both BPA and BPS are known endocrine disruptors. BPS may be just as bad as BPA. It's a classic case of "regrettable substitution” or the toxic whack-a-mole game.

BPA and BPS are not strongly bound to receipt paper, causing them to rub off very easily. Once on the skin they get absorbed right into the bloodstream.

A recent study found that the use of hand-sanitizers actually increases absorption, as does having lotion or grease on your hands.

BPA and BPS found in 93 percent of receipts

Healthy Stuff, a project of the environmental health advocacy organization, the Ecology Center, recently examined 207 receipts from 148 businesses to see if the makers of receipt developers have moved away from BPA. The report, released in partnership with Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families (a coalition of environmental and health groups) and titled More than you Bargained For: BPS and BPA in Receipts, found that 93 percent of analyzed receipts contained BPA or BPS.

The results did indeed display a shift away from BPA—only 18 percent of the analyzed receipts contained BPA—but unfortunately, 75 percent contained BPS. Hello, fire.

While most BPA is used in polycarbonate plastics and resin linings of food and drink containers, research shows that handling BPA-laden receipts is the number one exposure route for people. Gillian Zaharias Miller, senior scientist at the Ecology Center, explains, “It’s important to realize that BPA or BPS in polycarbonate plastic and in can linings is largely reacted into a stable polymer. Whereas in receipts BPA and BPS are present in their unreacted forms, unbound, and in high concentration.”

Laura Vandenberg studies endocrine disruptors at the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health & Health Sciences. "Work in my lab has shown that BPS alters exposed mice. Low doses disrupt maternal behaviors, the brain, and the mammary gland in nursing females. These data, and emerging work from other groups raises concern that the replacement of BPA with BPS is regrettable. Even though the number of studies on BPS remains limited, I feel there is sufficient evidence to raise concern about its safety."

How to reduce exposure

So what should consumers do? Shoppers can decline receipts or ask for electronic receipts when possible. Anyone handling thermal paper can fold the glossy side in because the back side is typically not coated with developer. This could prevent BPA and BPS from rubbing onto other items stored next to your receipts. Take it one step further by carrying a dedicated envelope for receipts.

As with most potential exposures, washing hands with soap and water can make a big difference. Also, don't let children play with receipts. And don’t recycle them: Recycling BPA- and BPS-based paper can contaminate future products made from the recycled paper.

As much as shoppers handle receipts, cashiers handle more of them—an average of 30 thermal receipts an hour. Cashiers who handle receipts show a large spike in BPA and BPS in their bodies after a work shift and have an estimated daily intake of these chemicals at least 70 times higher than the general population.

Retailers need to take action

Retailers should step up to safeguard the health of their workers and customers.

The Ecology Center has a list of suggestions for workers. But the organization is putting the onus on retailers in collaboration with the Mind the Store campaign. We are petitioning TJX Companies (TJ Maxx, Marshalls, HomeGoods, Sierra Trading Post) and Meijer to stop using these dangerous chemicals. You can sign the petition calling on these companies to switch to non-toxic receipts. We are encouraging all retailers to stop using BPA and BPS in their receipts. Other retailers whose receipts tested positive for BPA or BPS include Aldi, Barnes & Noble, Bed Bath & Beyond, Costco, CVS, The Home Depot, Kroger, Lowe’s, Rite Aid, Staples, Target, Walgreens, and Whole Foods.

"Businesses need to protect employees from occupational exposure to toxic chemicals," said Lauren Olson, science campaign director at the Ecology Center.

Trader Joe's was among the companies whose receipts were tested and were found to contain BPS. After the Ecology Center informed Trader Joe’s about the study, the discount natural grocery chain decided to make a change. As reported in Bloomberg News, Trader Joe's announced, "We are now pursuing receipt paper that is free of phenol chemicals (including BPA and BPS), which we will be rolling out to all stores as soon as possible.”

This follows Mind the Store's recent report card that gave Trader Joe’s an "F" for failing to have a comprehensive safer chemicals policy. We congratulate Trader Joe’s for taking these steps and hope the company won’t stop there. We’d like to see Trader Joe's take the next step and adopt a robust safer chemicals policy.

Receipts don’t have to be toxic

Trader Joe's and others can look to Best Buy, which received a "B" on the recent retailer report card. The electronics superstore released a comprehensive chemicals policy in late 2017, is active on the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council’s Retailer Leadership Council, and uses phenol-free receipt paper.

Pergafast 201 is the phenol-free developer of choice for Best Buy. The Ecology Center’s testing also found no thermal coating on receipts from two independently owned hardware stores. “Phenol-free receipt paper is available. It’s just more expensive,” said Olson, who also encourages employers to offset the higher cost by offering customers electronic receipts. And if there’s still a price difference, Olson said, "Protecting workers from negative health effects is worth the price."

Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families' Mind the Store campaign recently evaluated and ranked the chemical policies and practices of 30 major U.S. retailers in order to push companies for broader, longer-lasting reforms. In order to stop the cycle of frying pan to fire decision-making for harmful chemicals, we urge manufacturers and retailers to adopt comprehensive chemical policies to eliminate hazardous chemicals.

Melissa Cooper Sargent is the Green Living Resources Director for the Ecology Center.

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