Food – Grocery Receipts
Did You Know?
- About 640,000 tons of receipt paper is used in the U.S. each year, and almost all of it is contaminated with toxic chemicals.
- Hand sanitizers used by store clerks can magnify chemical absorption through the skin as much as 185 times.
- Many retailers offer electronic receipts, which can greatly reduce exposure to these chemicals.
Before We Dine
Toxins in Food Purchase and Preparation
Every effort to find food free of hazardous chemicals and adulterants will go unrewarded if the environment you purchase and prepare the food in is laced with toxins. And it is: from the toxins in receipts before you even leave the grocery store; to the containers and wrappings that leach contaminants food is stored in; to cooking vessels with toxic metals and coatings.
This story will advise conscientious consumers on these hazards, and specific ways to avoid them, as a prerequisite to protect the purity of the food products discussed throughout this article.
Toxic Grocery Receipts1
The first thing you can do to lower your chemical exposure from food is to stop receiving receipts from grocery stores. The U.S. consumes about 640,000 tons of receipts every year. Most modern paper receipts contain chemicals impregnated in the seemingly blank paper. When heat is applied to the paper by the register, chemical “developers” transform another seemingly transparent color-forming chemical into images.
Most of these developers are, to some degree, toxic, and can enter peoples’ bodies through simple contact with the skin. Even if you refuse to take or handle receipts, they are on the hands of the grocery store checkers, who (to a limited degree) expose you to the chemicals by handling and bagging your food and giving you change. Studies have shown that trace amounts of receipt chemicals contaminate the cash currency around the world.
The most infamous developer chemical used in receipts is Bisphenol A, more commonly referred to as BPA. The chemical is similar to the female hormone estrogen, and reacts in our bodies as an endocrine disruptor, developmental toxin, and reproductive toxin.
Various scientific studies have linked BPA to: attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder; heart disease; reproductive impairment (infertility, miscarriages, premature deliveries in women/reduced sperm count in men); type-2 diabetes; thyroid conditions; asthma; breast and prostate cancer; impaired liver and kidney function; and obesity.2 In some cases, it is believed to alter genes that can cause inherited health problems in future generations.
Because of BPA’s particular danger to infants, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned its use in baby bottles and sippy cups in 2012, and banned its use in infant formula packaging in 2013.3 Japan banned BPA in thermal paper in 2001.4 The European Union will ban it in 2020.5 The states of Connecticut and Illinois have banned the use of BPA in thermal paper, and the state of California is considering such a ban.6
While not prohibited in other U.S. states, widespread health concerns have caused a significant voluntary decrease of its domestic use. A 2018 survey of thermal paper showed that only 18% of receipts contained BPA.7 Unfortunately, most of the balance contained its chemical cousin BPS, which can cause many of the same health concerns.
While thermal paper may expose purchasers to chemical dangers, they create a much greater risk to grocery checkers who are constantly exposed to them. Studies have found that retail clerks that handle receipts have elevated levels of these chemicals in their bodies. Hand sanitizers commonly used by clerks increase absorption of BPA through the skin; one study stated the magnification of absorption was 185 times greater.8
Skeptics to this potential for chemical harm would argue that avoidance of thermal paper receipts for the average person (i.e., not a retail clerk) is overly cautious. Most studies have determined that BPA and BPS are not bioaccumulative, and if reexposure does not occur, much of the chemical is eliminated from the body in a few days. Further, a single exposure is not lethal, and in the case of these chemicals, skeptics would argue that the dose makes the poison (that higher doses are more dangerous).
This ignores: 1) the risk to fetuses, infants and young children, who are more susceptible because of lower body weight; 2) the risk to pregnant women who may also be more susceptible; 3) that receipts are one of several contributing sources of BPA contamination. (Other sources include food containers, house dust, and carbonless copy paper.) There is also a countervailing opinion from some scientists that there is no safe threshold for phenol chemicals.
To avoid toxic thermal paper, consider the following steps.
1. Wash hands with water quickly after handling receipts. (More than 4 minutes is too late.)
2. Keep away from children. Receipts are not a toy.
3. If you need to handle receipts with phenol chemicals repeatedly, wear gloves, and do not use sanitizers.
4. Avoid paper receipts whenever possible, either by asking the clerk not to hand you one, or receiving it electronically.
5. If you get one, fold the print side in, since the back is not usually coated with developers.
6. Keep receipts in a separate bag or envelope to keep them from exposure to people, objects, or materials.
7. Many experts recommend throwing away phenol receipts rather than recycling them because the chemicals can, to some degree, contaminate the recycled paper supply.
8. If you are unsure if a receipt has phenol in it, scratch it with a coin or sharp edge. If a dark streak is left, this shows that a phenol chemical is present.
Another thing you can do, assuming you have the time, is influence businesses and services that you frequent to use electronic receipts and/or alternative thermal-paper products free of toxic phenol chemicals. A list of alternative products is below.
1 Many of the facts in this article are from Porter, Beth and Ayate Temsamani, Skip the Slip, Washington, DC: Green America, May 10, 2018.
2 Howard, Greg, From BPA to BPZ: a toxic soup?, London, UK: Chem Trust, March 2018, pp. 5, 9, 18.
3 U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Bisphenol A (BPA): Use in Food Contact Application,” updated November 2014.
4 Zaharias, Gillian Miller and Lauren Olson, More than you Bargained For: BPS and BPA in Receipts, Ann Arbor, MI: Ecology Center, January 17, 2018, p. 13.
5 Op. cit, Howard, Greg, p. 5.
6 Franklin, Kelly, “Illinois governor signs into law ban on receipts containing BPA,” Chemical Watch, August 28, 2019.
Goldman, Harry, “Most Cash Register Receipts Are Coated in BPA—NYC Wants to Ban Them,” Fortune, December 4, 2019.
7 op. cit., Porter, Beth.
8 Hormann, A., et al., “Holding thermal receipt paper and eating food after using hand sanitizer results in high serum bioactive and urine total levels of bisphenol A (BPA),” PLOS ONE, V. 9, No. 10, October 22, 2014.