That paper receipt innocently nestled against the fruits and vegetables in your grocery sack or tucked in your wallet may contain a chemical that is being studied as potentially harmful to people.
A new study shows the synthetic estrogen BPA, or bisphenol A, was found on 40 percent of tested cash register receipts. In addition, some receipts had 250 to 1,000 times the amount typically found in the lining of a can of food or can of baby formula.
Pending federal legislation would ban the chemical from food containers.
"This is a chemical that people should avoid," said Frederick vom Saal, a professor at the University of Missouri and a leading BPA researcher. "Imagine a piece of paper that had talcum powder coated on it and you picked it up. You would see and smell the talcum powder.
"Bisphenol A is colorless, odorless, tasteless, but when you touch the paper, it comes off just like talcum powder would."
BPA has been linked to health problems ranging from heart disease to cancer to diabetes to neurological problems. Early this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reversed its earlier BPA stance and announced that it had "some concerns" about the potential human health impacts and would begin studying BPA and ways to reduce exposure.
Meanwhile, consumers should wash their hands after handling ATM or cash register receipts and should keep the receipts away from children, said Tressa Madden, the state Health Department's director of consumer protection.
The study paid for by the Environmental Working Group did not examine how much of the chemical that rubs off onto the hands is absorbed through the skin or ingested by people while handling food or touching their mouths. Vom Saal said more research is needed.
BPA is used to coat thermal paper. The chemical reacts with dye to form the black print on receipts.
New interest in BPA
The Environmental Protection Agency recently began holding meetings with the chemical industry and environmental groups to consider alternatives to BPA-containing receipts.
The nation's largest manufacturer of thermal paper for cash register and credit card receipts, Appleton Papers Inc., said it dropped BPA from its papers in 2006 over concern about the chemical.
The American Chemistry Council, the industry association, released a statement saying some receipts can contain low levels of bisphenol A.
"However, available data suggests that BPA is not readily absorbed through the skin," the release stated. "Exposure levels to BPA by the general U.S. population — from all sources — are quite low; they're about 1,000 times below safe intake levels set by government bodies in Europe and the U.S."
Internationally, BPA has been banned in some products in Canada and Japan. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found BPA in the urine of 93 percent of adults and children tested. Connecticut, Minnesota, Maryland, Vermont, Wisconsin, Washington and New York responded with a ban on BPA in young children's products.
Walmart, Toys R Us and other stores have stopped selling BPA-containing baby bottles and cups. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said it supports the industry's effort to eliminate BPA.
While BPA is found in some 2 billion products in the U.S., vom Saal said some products, such as helmets, eyeglasses and CDs, may not be as risky because the chemical is in a different form. But disposal of such products into landfills, where the chemical could be released into the environment, has become an Environmental Protection Agency issue.
Lee McGoodwin, Oklahoma Poison Control Center director, said she's not convinced the chemical should be banned.
"I'm a little skeptical because the skin is a pretty good barrier against a lot of chemicals," she said.