Bisphenol-a, or BPA, is such a ubiquitous chemical in our environment that it's been detected in everything from toilet paper to beach sand. Considering that 8 billion tons of the chemical are produced every year, there are a lot of chances for this hormone-disrupting chemical—which has also been linked to certain forms of cancer, low sperm counts, behavior problems, obesity, and diabetes—to wind up in our homes and in our atmosphere.
Now there's evidence that paper products could be a primary exposure source. A new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found detectable levels of BPA in everything from business cards, paper towels, newspapers, and, yes, more toilet paper. Add this evidence to a study published a few months ago in the same journal that found detectable levels of BPA on paper money and it may not come as a surprise that an estimated 93 percent of Americans have high levels of BPA in their bodies.
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The most likely culprit for all this contamination, the authors of this new study found, is receipt paper. Thermal receipts (the slick kind you get from ATMs and gas pumps) are coated with BPA, which aids in the transfer of ink to paper. About one-third of those receipts get recycled each year and contaminate other recycled-paper products, including recycled-paper napkins and paper towels. For their study, the scientists collected thermal receipts, flyers, magazines, tickets, mailing envelopes, newspapers, food contact papers and food cartons (which are commonly made with recycled paper), airplane boarding passes, luggage tags, printing papers, business cards, napkins, paper towels, and toilet paper from several U.S. cities. BPA was detected in 94 percent of the thermal receipts tested, even those purportedly made from BPA-free receipt paper, and in 81 percent of the other paper goods.
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BPA is easily absorbed through skin, and previous studies have found that cashiers have higher-than-average levels of BPA in their bodies. According to the authors, the levels of BPA exposure to the general public from paper products "are minor compared with exposure through diet"; canned goods are lined with a resin made with BPA, and canned foods used at home, in restaurants, and in other processed foods are believed to be the way most of us are exposed to the chemical. The problem is, they note, the sheer number of paper products that are contaminated could pose a much bigger problem in the long run, as retailers and food manufacturers gradually replace BPA with other alternatives.
To do your part to keep BPA contamination from spreading, take the following steps:
• Ditch the clutter. Receipts are a waste of paper, anyway. Most gas stations and ATMs already give you the option of declining receipts. In other situations, ask the cashier not to print one out, particularly if you're paying with cash and don't need a record of your transaction.
• Keep receipts out of your recycle bin. It's the best way to avoid contaminating the recycling stream. In addition to the evidence provided in this study, waste-management professionals in Greece and Japan have done studies tracing BPA in wastewater back to toilet tissue that was made from recycled paper.
• Store receipts in an envelope or bag—but not in your wallet. This prevents BPA from rubbing off of receipts onto cash or credit cards you may handle frequently.
• Wash your hands—but avoid hand sanitizers. A recent Swiss study found that people who used those sanitizers then handled receipts absorbed more BPA into their skin than people who washed their hands before handling receipts.