The shift toward BPA-free receipt paper continues
Last year, Daniel Feldman was working the cash register at Gateways Books & Gifts when a customer alerted him to a surprising fact: “You know,” he told Feldman, “if you’re using thermal receipts you probably have BPA in the receipts.”
Feldman, a local tai chi and qi gong teacher and vice president of the Live Oak Grange, already knew of and avoided other products, like plastic water bottles, canned food, and other food packaging, that are known to carry bisophenol A (BPA), an estrogen-mimicking synthetic compound used to make plastic products. But receipts were a new discovery for him. He inquired with the store’s manager and learned that they were, in fact, using “regular thermal receipts,” which contain BPA.
Thermal paper used for faxes, luggage tags, labels, and receipts often are made using BPA as a color developer. Scientists from the University of Missouri Division of Biological Sciences commissioned to study BPA in receipts by The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit focused on public health issues, concluded that the total amount of BPA on a receipt is “250 to 1,000 times greater than the amount of BPA typically found in a can of food or a can of baby formula, or that which leaches from a BPA-based plastic baby bottle into its contents.” EWG also oversaw studies that determined that BPA on receipt paper can be absorbed into the skin, as well as absorbed via hand-to-mouth transfer.
The health risks associated with BPA made big news in 2008, when a National Institute on Health panel reported that it might have adverse effects on fetal and infant brain development. Other health impacts being investigated include cancer, diabetes, obesity and early puberty. While The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is still studying the substance’s effects, other countries have taken more drastic measures—in 2010, Canada became the first country to declare BPA a toxic substance, and both Canada and the European Union banned the use of it in baby bottles.
As someone who handled an estimated 100 to 200 receipts during each shift at the bookstore, this information deeply concerned Feldman. American retail workers have 30 percent more BPA in their systems than the average American adult, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (which also reports that BPAs are in the bodies of 93 percent of Americans above age 6).
“Right there it should be an OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Association] issue and considered hazardous for workers, let alone for the customers,” says Feldman. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 3,354,170 Americans work as cashiers, including 2,940 people in Santa Cruz and Watsonville.
Had Gateways not closed soon after Feldman learned about the matter, he says they would have switched to BPA-free receipt paper like an increasing number of other stores are doing. “[Switching] is really a no-brainer—a low-hanging fruit,” Feldman says, pointing to the fact that the country’s largest paper manufacturer, Appleton, has been BPA free since 2006, and several others now offer BPA-free receipt paper, as well. Appleton’s Manager of Corporate Communication Bill Van Den Brandt says that although the new paper formula is more costly for them to make, the company did not increase the cost of their products after going BPA-free.
Stores in Santa Cruz that have made the switch to BPA-free receipts include New Leaf Community Markets, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Safeway.
“It’s important not only because it is something our customers want, but because it supports our wellness, values and overall lifestyle to be free of unnecessary chemicals,” says Sarah Owens, marketing director for New Leaf, of the decision to switch over. New Leaf is also working to reduce receipt use altogether: they’ve partnered with MyReceipts.com to offer a paperless receipt option to customers that will be available in two months (it’s already available for senior shoppers).
Nick Elred has worked as a cashier at New Leaf for 10 years, and estimates that he touches between 500 and 700 of the little pieces of paper per shift. “I think we use way too much paper, period, in this world,” he says. “So why not [go paperless]? If you were to look at how many receipts get recycled each day here—it’s an entire trashcan. That’s people that just don’t want their receipts.” In the meantime, he says he’s grateful that the receipts he does handle are BPA-free.
Safeway’s Northern California Spokesperson Susan Houghton says the company switched to BPA-free receipts in 2010 due to customer concern. “This was new news to all of us, that the receipts contained [BPA], so from a corporate responsibility and sustainability standpoint we made the switch,” she says.
Other businesses, such as CVS, continue to use thermal receipt paper with BPA. Mike DeAngelis, director of Public Relations for the drugstore, cites inconclusive evidence of the effects of BPA and the government’s current safe intake levels as reasons they haven’t switched over: “While low levels of BPA can transfer from thermal paper to skin, those levels are well below government-set safe intake levels,” he says. “While exposure to BPA from our receipt paper is extremely low, we regularly monitor health and safety issues that are important to our customers.”
Feldman’s interest in the BPA-free movement has steadily gained steam since his awakening to the issue at Gateways last year. He has spent the year since researching the issue, contacting local stores, and writing about it in The Connection and California State Grange magazines. He’s made the issue a campaign of the Live Oak Grange, which is also known as “The Green Grange” and has a mission to advocate for sustainability and environmental issues. He says the California Grange will vote on a resolution for a statewide ban on BPA in receipts at their convention in October. If passed, their lobbyist will take the resolution to Sacramento.
Once more local stores show interest, he hopes to take the idea of a BPA ban to the city or county of Santa Cruz. “People can’t rag on it,” he says. “We wouldn’t be asking stores to do anything extraordinary. We’re just asking that they switch their paper.”
Meanwhile, he offers the following advice for local shoppers: avoid touching receipts that aren’t BPA free, and wash your hands if you do. And, “whenever you go to a store, ask they if they use BPA-free receipts. If they do, thank them—thank them for being concerned about their staff and their customers’ health.”
Photo credit Kena Parker