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Disputed chemical bisphenol-A found in paper receipts

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2010; A13

As lawmakers and health experts wrestle over whether a controversial chemical, bisphenol-A, should be banned from food and beverage containers, a new analysis by an environmental group suggests Americans are being exposed to BPA through another, surprising route: paper receipts.

The Environmental Working Group found BPA on 40 percent of the receipts it collected from supermarkets, automated teller machines, gas stations and chain stores. In some cases, the total amount of BPA on the receipt was 1,000 times the amount found in the epoxy lining of a can of food, another controversial use of the chemical.

Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst with the environmental group, says BPA's prevalence on receipts could help explain why the chemical can be detected in the urine of an estimated 93 percent of Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We've come across potentially major sources of BPA right here in our daily lives," Lunder said. "When you're carrying around a receipt in your wallet for months while you intend to return something, you could be shedding BPA into your home, into your environment. If you throw a receipt into a bag of food, and it's lying there against an apple, or you shove a receipt into your bag next to a baby pacifier, you could be getting all kinds of exposure and not realize it."

What remains unknown is how much of the chemical that may rub off onto the hands is absorbed through the skin or whether people then ingest BPA by handling food or touching their mouths.

Among those surveyed, receipts from Safeway supermarkets contained the highest concentration of BPA. A receipt taken from a store in the District contained 41 milligrams of the chemical. If the equivalent amount of BPA was ingested by a 155-pound adult, that would exceed EPA's decades-old safe exposure limit for BPA by 12 times.

Brian Dowling, a Safeway spokesman, said the company is researching the issue and consulting with its suppliers of receipt paper.

First synthesized in 1891 and developed in the 1930s as a synthetic form of estrogen, bisphenol-A has been widely used in commercial products including plastic bottles, compact discs and dental sealants. While it was regarded as safe for decades, recent research using sophisticated analytic techniques suggests that low doses of the compound can interfere with the endocrine system and cause a range of health effects, including reproductive problems and cancer.

Federal regulators have been focused on BPA and whether it leaches from containers into foods and beverages at levels that may cause health problems. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration expressed "some concern" about BPA and joined several agencies in conducting $30 million in studies to try to answer questions about its safety. Lawmakers on the local, state and federal levels have moved to ban BPA from food and beverage containers made for infants and children.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents the chemical industry, said that while BPA can transfer from paper receipts to the skin, the level of absorption is low. "Available data suggests that BPA is not readily absorbed through the skin," a spokeswoman said. "Biomonitoring data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control shows that exposure to BPA from all sources, which would include typical exposure from receipts, is extremely low."

The Environmental Protection Agency, however, recognizing that paper coated in BPA may be a significant route of exposure, launched an effort this month to work with paper manufacturers, the chemical industry and environmental groups to encourage companies to find alternatives to BPA in receipts.

Appleton Papers, the nation's largest manufacturer of "thermal papers," the type often used for receipts, dropped BPA from its formulation in 2006 out of growing concerns about the safety of the chemical, said Kent Willetts, the company's vice president of strategic development. "We just realized we'd rather move away from it sooner than later," Willetts said.

The Environmental Working Group's report can be found

online at http://www.ewg.org/bpa-in-store-receipts.

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