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Eugene Weekly : News : 4.15.10

Toxic Receipts 

You might want not to save that scrap of paper

By Deborah Bloom

Consumers, beware. That receipt you’re holding might be toxic, and only a few Lane County businesses are doing anything about it.  

Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a chemical linked to such conditions as asthma, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. It is an estrogen-mimicking industrial compound found in large concentrations in up to 60 percent of thermal paper, the medium of choice for sales receipts. This receipt paper is coated with BPA, which reacts to the applied heat of a thermal printer by creating an image. Telling the difference between thermal paper with BPA and without is virtually impossible.

The toxicity of BPA has been suspect since the 1930s, but the ill effects of this synthetic hormone and its presence in polycarbonate plastics, such as water bottles and Tupperware, didn’t make headlines until recently. Lisa Arkin of Oregon Toxics Alliance says that consumers still aren’t aware of their own risks. “If people knew, they would demand safer products.” 

John C. Warner, organic chemist and co-founder of the Babcock-Warner Institute for Green Chemistry, first discovered the enormous presence of BPA in sales receipts almost a decade ago. In an interview with EW, Warner described receipts as consumers’ largest source of BPA-exposure. 

“We’re talking several orders of magnitude more BPA on the surface of a cash register receipt than in a polycarbonate bottle,” he said. “And it’s absolutely free.” Free as in the BPA is not bound into a polymer, causing the individual molecules to be loose and more susceptive to potential skin-absorption. 

“When you have repeated, high-level, toxic exposure to people working in sales and cashiers who are handling receipts constantly, it becomes a worker protection issue,” said Arkin. “We don’t have any laws to protect checkers or cashiers from the BPA that they may be absorbing.” 

As more information is reported on the link between BPA and its health effects, Arkin emphasized the need for policy reform to reflect this growing concern. “Currently, we value speed and convenience over human health. When we find a chemical known to be an endocrine disrupter is being used in a consumer product, we should have a policy that requires the manufacturer to prove that it’s safe,” she said. “The burden of proof in our country is for the public to prove that it’s harmful.”

Alan Twigg, manager of Sequential Biofuels, said that the gas station uses non-BPA paper for its in-store receipts. “We would have gotten a thermal printer if we had wanted to,” he said. “Especially since thermal paper is faster and there’s less in terms of maintenance.” Thermal printers work quickly and do not require the replacement of print cartridges or ribbons. 

Warner said that consumers’ lack of knowledge and demand for substitutions were reasons for the ongoing presence of BPA in receipts. “If there’s a perception that alternatives don’t exist, it becomes self-fulfilling,” he said. According to Warner, there is thermal paper on the market that is produced without BPA, but if “no one’s asking for an alternative, then that is what they are going to continue selling.” 

When David ResSeguie, IT specialist at Sundance Natural Foods, first read about the presence of BPA in thermal paper, he tried to find out if Sundance’s receipts were a part of this phenomenon, but found that “nobody wanted to talk about it.” ResSeguie finally found a company that produced thermal, BPA-free receipt paper, for which he currently pays about 50 percent more.

Thermal paper is also non-recyclable, but is accepted at Lane County Waste Management because it comprises such a marginal percentage of garbage. However, some businesses are unsure whether to recycle or throw out their leftover receipts. 

When ResSeguie asked how Sundance should dispose of the receipts not taken by customers, he was given inconsistent answers. “First we were told that they are fine just like all other paper. Then we were told that there’s something that makes them not like all other paper so they couldn’t be recycled. Now we are told that we can recycle only some of our receipts.” 

Appleton Papers Inc., one of North America’s largest paper manufacturers, became aware of the controversy surrounding the substance in 2006 and responded by manufacturing thermal paper that didn’t contain BPA. Appleton spokesperson Bill Van Den Brandt said that manufacturing BPA-free thermal paper “is not more expensive. We simply use an alternative ingredient.” However, many stores in Eugene are still using the BPA coated receipts. 

Van Den Brandt described the process of Appleton switching over to a different manufacturing process as cost-inducing. “That’s always a factor when you’re considering manufacturing processes.” But, “we’re evidence that it’s certainly possible.”