Dec. 2, 2011 -- It seems there's no escaping the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), which is used to make plastics like water bottles and to coat the insides of aluminum cans.
Now a new study shows that BPA is also in a wide variety of paper products, including napkins, toilet paper, tickets, food wrappers, newspapers, and printer paper.
"The concentrations are very high in the paper products," says study researcher Kurunthachalam Kannan, PhD, a research scientist at the New York State Department of Health.
Kannan tested more than 200 paper samples from 15 different types of products.
He found BPA levels in paper that were 100 to 1 million times higher than amounts detected in canned and packaged foods.
The study is published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
Researchers say that because only a fraction of that is absorbed through the skin, most people probably pick up far less BPA handling paper than they do from their diets.
But those amounts may wind up being significant for people like cashiers or printers who have to touch a lot of BPA-tainted paper as part of their jobs.
"We've been focused on food, but there could be certain groups of people that could be exposed through other routes and other sources," says Joseph Braun, PhD, a research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, who is studying how BPA may affect kids' behavior. He was not involved in the latest study.
In Braun's studies, pregnant women who worked as cashiers had BPA levels that were about 30% higher than pregnant women who had different kinds of jobs.
BPA in Recycled Paper
How did BPA get into paper? Probably recycling, researchers say.
A thin coating of powdered BPA is used on some kinds of heat-sensitive paper, like cash register receipts, shipping labels, and lottery tickets.
Researchers estimate that tossed thermal paper contributes about 33.5 tons of BPA to the environment each year.
About 30% of thermal paper winds up being recycled, introducing BPA into many different kinds of items.
That's concerning, researchers say, because BPA is chemically similar to the hormone estrogen. It has been linked to problems with reproduction and sexual development, to behavioral and developmental problems in young children, and to some kinds of cancer.
Experts say such studies are suggestive, but not conclusive. And they insist that there's no danger from BPA in paper.
"These are trivial exposures," far below the tolerable safe levels of BPA set by the Environmental Protection Agency, says John Heinze, PhD, executive director of the Environmental Health Research Foundation in Chantilly, Va., a nonprofit organization that does research for the American Chemistry Council, an industry group. "They don't really raise any concerns for safety. That's really what their data show."
How Much BPA Do People Pick Up From Paper?
For the study, researchers tested 103 different thermal receipts collected from supermarkets, banks, libraries, gas stations, and restaurants in seven U. S. cities, South Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. Japan phased out the use of BPA in receipts in 2001.
Researchers also tested 14 other kinds of paper products including flyers, magazines, bus and train tickets, envelopes, newspapers, food wrappers and cartons, airplane boarding passes, luggage tags, printing paper, business cards, napkins, paper towels, and toilet paper.
Ninety-four percent of the thermal receipts tested positive for BPA, including some receipts that claimed to be BPA-free.
The levels of BPA detected on the receipts were much higher than for other paper products.
The highest concentration of BPA found among other kinds of paper was in tickets, followed by newspapers.
Researchers then estimated how much paper products might contribute to a person's total daily BPA exposure.
Cutting BPA Exposure
Based on their models, if an average person handled thermal receipts twice each day, and other kinds of paper five to 10 times a day, they'd get about 2% of their total daily exposure to BPA from paper products.
For cashiers, it was assumed they would touch receipts around 150 times a day, which could contribute as much as 51% of their daily BPA exposure.
Researchers say that if people want to cut their exposure to BPA in paper, they should be careful about how they handle receipts.
If you don't need one, don't take it, Kannan says.
If you do need a receipt, some retailers will email it.
If a hard copy is your only option, head to the sink soon after. "Whenever I touch a thermal receipt paper, immediately I wash my hands," Kannan says.
For cashiers, he says, wearing gloves would probably help cut the amount of BPA absorbed through the skin.