The next time the cashier asks, “Would you like your receipt?” the healthiest response might be, “No thanks!” That’s because a small but troubling new study finds that touching a cash register receipt can increase your body’s absorption of a controversial chemical used in the receipt’s coating.
The chemical is bisphenol A, or BPA, which has been at the center of debate for decades over its use in plastic water bottles, baby bottles and the linings of cans of food. It’s also used as a coating for certain kinds of paper, including cash register and ATM receipts.
Some researchers say BPA produces disruptive hormonal effects in the body linked to developmental problems in infants and children, and an increased risk for cancer, obesity, diabetes and heart disease in adults.
The study, by University of Missouri researchers and published Oct. 22 in the online journal PLOS One, tested 24 subjects’ BPA levels before and after they handled receipt paper and after eating with BPA-contaminated fingers.
“Our research found that large amounts of BPA can be transferred to your hands and then to the food you hold and eat, as well as be absorbed through your skin,” lead author Frederick vom Saal, professor of biological sciences and a longtime BPA researcher, told Forbes.
According to the scientists, just two seconds of handling the receipt transferred 40 percent of the total amount of BPA to the skin. The level of BPA in the urine or blood serum of the participants was also higher after handling the receipts than it was before, with the difference greater in women than men.
The team additionally found that using hand sanitizer before touching the receipt, or eating greasy french fries after touching it, actually increased the amount of BPA absorbed through the skin. Vom Saal thinks that’s because the sanitizer may have reduced the skin’s natural barrier and because BPA is oil-soluble, allowing it to enter the skin more effectively.
The health risk BPA represents has produced mixed messages from the government over the years. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed detectable levels of BPA in 93 percent of 2,517 urine samples taken from people age 6 and older. And in 2012, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups.
And yet this year the FDA issued an update calling BPA “safe at the current levels occurring in foods” and supporting its use in food containers and packaging. Plus, a recent analysis of data by a leading environmental group and the Harvard School of Public Health found that for breast cancer, at least, BPA did not present a risk.
Others aren’t so sure. Steven Gilbert, director and founder of the Institute of Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders in Seattle, said 15 billion pounds of BPA are used each year in the United States. “All of us have BPA in our bodies. We should be more careful with the chemicals we put into the environment,” he told HealthDay.
A spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, an industry group, took issue with the Missouri study, however, calling the experiment “unrealistic.”
“Typical BPA exposure from all sources is about 1,000 times below safe intake levels set by government bodies in the U.S., Canada and Europe,” Steven Hentges told HealthDay.
As for an alternative to BPA, the researchers wrote in their study that a recent Environmental Protection Agency report examined 19 alternative chemicals that could potentially replace BPA and concluded that “no clearly safer alternatives to BPA were identified in this report; most alternatives have moderate or high hazard designations for human health or aquatic toxicity endpoints.”
The only solution may be an alternative way to print receipts, they note.
Or maybe, as more stores are offering, we should just ask for our receipt to be emailed.
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