Thermal printing is ubiquitous in the modern world, to the point that you have very likely come into contact with a thermal-printed paper at some point this week. It is used in luggage tags, faxes, various labels, airline tickets and, of course, receipts. Whether dispensed from a gas station ATM or delivered with a mint at a fine dining establishment, the process is the same: Chemicals are sprayed onto a heated plastic-coated paper to produce an image.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is used as a developer for the heat-activated ink on thermal receipts. Though commonly used in the production of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins, long-term exposure to BPA has been associated with impaired hormone function, hypertension and adverse neurological effects. The European Union, Canada, China, South Africa and Malaysia have all banned the use of BPA in baby bottles. Following a petition from the American Chemistry Council, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration followed suit in 2012.
Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency published its final report on the use of BPA in the production of thermal paper. After testing 103 thermal receipt papers from 58 locations in the U.S., Japan, Korea and Vietnam, researchers recorded levels of BPA in 94 percent of the sample. Of the U.S. receipts, 100 percent of them contained BPA. Zero percent of the Japanese samples contained the chemical, which the authors attribute to Japan’s phasing out the use of BPA in its thermal paper in 2001.
In October, a new study was published in Plos One that shows that hand sanitizers and lotions increase BPA absorption through the skin by a hundred-fold.
“We found that when men and women held thermal receipt paper immediately after using a hand sanitizer with penetration enhancing chemicals,” the authors write, “significant free BPA was transferred to their hands and then to French fries that were eaten, and the combination of dermal and oral BPA absorption led to a rapid and dramatic average maximum increase (Cmax) in unconjugated (bioactive) BPA.”
This presents a serious problem not only to consumers but also to cashiers, who can handle hundreds of receipts per day.
According to Frederick vom Saal, the lead author of the study and professor of biology at the University of Missouri, “BPA has been proven to cause reproductive defects in fetuses, infants, children, and adults as well as cancer, metabolic, and immune problems in rodents.”
Takepart has composed a short list of ways that consumers can protect themselves from absorbing BPA from receipts, which includes declining them when possible, requesting a digital alternative when available, avoiding the use of hand sanitizer or lotion prior to purchasing food and washing your hands between touching a receipt and eating.