Dec. 8, 2010 -- Bisphenol A or BPA, a common chemical found in plastics and other consumer products that's been linked to reproductive harm and other ills, can also be transferred to the skin from cash register receipts and dollar bills, according to a new investigation by two environmental advocacy groups.
"BPA is a developer used in the thermal paper," says Erika Schreder, a staff scientist at the Washington Toxics Coalition and author of the new report, "On the Money: BPA on Dollar Bills and Receipts." It's found in the receipts used by probably 95% of stores, she tells WebMD.
Together with the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, the Washington Toxics Coalition researched the extent to which thermal paper containing BPA has permeated the market, whether BPA also escapes onto money that is usually close to those receipts in the wallet, and whether the chemical easily transfers to skin.
As a result of the investigation, Schreder recommends people handle receipts as little as possible. But a spokesperson for the Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group says there is no reason to worry.
A Closer Look: BPA in Receipts and Money
For the study, researchers collected 22 receipts made with thermal paper from 22 retailers in 10 states and Washington, D.C. The sites included grocery stores, home improvement, discount, and retail stores.
Researchers also collected dollar bills from 18 states and D.C., testing 22 in all.
BPA was found in what Schreder calls very large quantities in 11 of the 22 receipts -- in amounts up to 2.2% of the total weight.
BPA was found in 21 of the 22 bills tested.
Because the BPA used in thermal paper is not chemically bound, it is a concern, Schreder says. "We are definitely concerned about these levels of BPA in receipts because BPA is present in an unbound form, where it can easily transfer to our skin."
To see how easily it may transfer, researchers conducted tests mimicking a typical handling of receipts. BPA was transferred from receipts to fingers. Just 10 seconds of holding a receipt resulted in a transfer of up to 2.5 micrograms, the researchers found.
And rubbing the receipt -- similar to scrunching it or fiddling with it -- transferred about 15 times that amount.
"BPA is a hormone-disrupting chemical," Schreder says, capable of causing problems such as reproductive harm, early puberty, and infertility.
The big concern is overall exposure, she says, with BPA from receipts and money adding to the total.
BPA Industry Responds
''Some receipts made from thermal paper can contain low levels of bisphenol A (BPA)," Steven G. Hentges, PhD, senior director of the Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group, says in a statement.
However, he says, there is no reason for concern. "Recent scientific studies indicate that to the limited extent BPA is absorbed through the skin, it is converted to a biologically inactive metabolite that is rapidly eliminated from the body."
And, he says, the trace levels of BPA claimed to be present on dollar bills are not significant.
BPA on Receipts, Money: Perspective
The new report ''shows that a significant amount of BPA comes off the receipt and onto the skin," says Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, a public and environmental health advocacy group. He conducted an editorial review of the report for the researchers.
More research is needed, he and Schreder say.
''It could turn out that skin exposure could be an important pathway," Schettler says.
BPA Exposure: How to Minimize
What's needed, in Schreder's view, is for Congress to make reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act a top priority. Bills have been introduced in the House and the Senate to update the law, she says.
Her organization is calling for immediate action to reduce exposure to the most hazardous chemicals.
"BPA is on that list," she tells WebMD.
Meanwhile, she suggests minimizing exposure to receipts. "Refuse it if you can," she says. If not, store the receipts separately in your wallet, away from your currency.
"Keep receipts away from young children, and wash your hands after handling," she says.