Nearly every day we encounter thermal paper receipts — those lightly coated slips from the grocery store, clothing store, gas station and the like. Now, a recent analysis by non-profit Green America highlights the toxicity of those receipts through its Skip the Slip initiative. Because as it turns out, an estimated 93 percent of these receipts are coated with bisphenol A (BPA) or bisphenol S (BPS), endocrine disruptors that can get absorbed into our bodies when we touch them on the paper.
At the non-profit Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, team members are working with leading retailers on creating comprehensive chemicals policies as part of their Mind the Store campaign. But while efforts have been made to limit or stop use of BPA or BPS in products like canned food and baby bottles, receipts have not followed suit, says Mind the Store campaign director Mike Schade.
“The chemicals can leach from the receipt, get onto our hands and make their way into our bloodstream,” Schade says. “Exposure to bisphenol chemicals has been linked to cancer, fertility issues and more.”
The practice of utilizing thermal paper receipts has been around since the late 1980s, says Beth Porter, Green America’s climate and recycling director and Skip the Slip campaign leader. This special type of paper changes color when exposed to heat, which is how the ink appears. The bisphenols are the reactant acids used to facilitate this process, and because they are coated on top of the paper, they can easily be transferred to skin or other items they come into contact with.
Peter Orris, MD, MPH, chief of Occupational & Environmental Medicine at UI Health, has been practicing and educating worker and community groups about toxic chemicals for 40 years. He explains that while long-term research has yet to be done on BPA and BPS usage, it’s clear that these endocrine disruptors are being heavily scrutinized with just cause.
“I don’t think we fully understand these chemicals just yet,” Orris says. “But think about what we’ve learned about asbestos and mercury, how harmful they are and the millions and millions of dollars we’ve spent removing them from common products when they could have been avoided in the first place.”
There isn’t a solid consensus on safe levels of bisphenols that can be absorbed in a day, Porter says. “In 2015, the European Food Safety Authority declared that previous limits for BPA (50 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day) were set too high and lowered the limit to 4 micrograms per kilogram of body weight. But in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration has set the limit at 50 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day.”
Chemicals like bisphenols have been associated with altering the male and female reproductive systems, heightening occurrences of breast cancer and abnormal growth patterns and neurodevelopmental delays in children, according to the World Health Organization.
Orris warns that if actions aren’t taken, these issues may rise. Furthermore, he adds, a holistic, systemic approach must be taken to create change in chemical usage in various industries.
“For so many years we emphasized industrial engineering and looked at how effective it was in our lives. We didn’t focus on the impact on our health or our environment,” Orris says. “There is a global shift occurring. There are safer solutions out there that are good, efficient and inexpensive and do not have to have negative effects on our health or environment.”
While shoppers’ exposure from BPA on thermal paper receipts is a serious concern, Schade adds, even more important is the regular exposure retail and restaurant employees face. He says that in some instances an employee can handle upwards of 30 receipts in one hour on the job.
Schade recommends consumers and employees alike should ask what type of receipt paper is being used and encourage decisionmakers to implement healthier options, like thermal paper with a less hazardous, phenol-free developer. Even better, he emphasizes, would be to encourage all parties to opt for digital receipt options. According to Skip the Slip, one-third of retailers have adopted digital receipt usage.
You can recognize thermal paper receipts with the naked eye, Porter says. They have a waxy feel and may discolor easily if scratched.
If a thermal paper receipt is the only presented option, Schade says, consumers should fold the receipt print side in and place it in an envelope inside their bag. Employees should consider using gloves while handling receipts and should wash their hands before eating.
In addition to the health effects, the environmental ramifications of receipt production are also concerning. The Skip the Slip report is one of the first U.S. initiatives focused on the environmental impacts of receipt waste. It indicates that an estimated 12.4 million trees, 13.2 billion gallons of water and 4 billion pounds of carbon dioxide are released each year in the United States for paper receipt production.
Individuals may be inclined to recycle receipts in an effort to minimalize their own environmental impact, but Schade discourages that as it can lead to cross-contamination with bisphenols in the recycling process.
“The easiest and best alternative is for retailers to offer an e-receipt to safeguard employees and customers,” Schade says. “It’s time for retailers to skip the slip and mind the store.”