Receipts expose retail workers, consumers to 'worrying' levels of cancer-linked chemicals: study
Published Thursday, February 7, 2019 10:00PM EST Last Updated Saturday, February 9, 2019 12:15PM EST
Retail workers across Canada are being exposed to “worrying” levels of BPA and BPS -- hormone disrupting industrial chemicals that have been linked to diabetes, obesity, ADHD and breast and prostate cancers -- by simply handling thermal paper receipts, according to the results of a new experiment by Environmental Defence Canada (EDC). To reach that conclusion, four environmentalists even put their bodies on the line.
“These slips of paper are covertly exposing cashiers to worrying levels of hormone disrupting BPA and BPS every day,” Muhannad Malas, toxics program manager at EDC, said in the study. “But it doesn’t have to be this way.”
For the first-of-its-kind experiment, Malas and EDC toxics program co-ordinator Sarah Jamal partnered with Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, the authors of “Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health” -- a 2009 book that is about to be re-released in an updated form.
For the experiment, each of the four environmentalists voluntarily handled receipts, tickets and passes printed on thermal paper and then conducted urine tests to show how easily BPA -- which is short for “bisphenol A” and commonly found in thermal paper -- can be absorbed through the skin into a person’s body.
They also handled thermal paper coated with BPS, or “bisphenol S,” which several companies have switched to in light of BPA-related concerns, though some scientists warn it could have similar negative health effects.
The team at EDC found that BPA levels in their bodies rose up to 42 times higher than the baseline and BPS levels increased by up to 115 times.
“As a consumer, this scares the bejeebers out of me,” Smith told CTV News. “All of us have handled these things on a daily basis.”
While the increased amount of BPA and BPS were both considered troubling, the dramatic difference in BPS can be explained by the greater proportion of BPS-coated receipts in the Canadian market, EDC’s report stated.
Smith, moreover, who recorded the highest levels of both BPA and BPS in the experiment, cleaned his hands with sanitizer before touching the receipts.
Previous studies have shown that holding receipts and eating after using hand sanitizer results in higher levels of BPA in blood and urine.
“The scale of chemical increase that I saw in my body is probably due to my use of hand sanitizer before the experiment,” Smith explained. “Given that many people, including retail workers, use hand sanitizer on a daily basis, this is a huge cause for concern. I now try not to touch cash receipts when someone hands one to me. And it's tough to do.”
Researchers did a two-week BPA and BPS detox before the experiment, avoiding all sources of the chemicals for two weeks, cutting out canned food, plastic containers, bottled water and wearing gloves when handling receipts.
Each participant took a urine sample to test BPA and BPS levels after the two-week detox. This would be the baseline data.
The researchers then touched an assortment of receipts collected from Ottawa and the Greater Toronto Area for a short time, around 15 minutes; the length of time they estimated a cashier would spend touching receipts on a daily basis.
They then tested chemicals in their urine from before the exposure and eight to 10 hours later.
“To see the levels of BPA and BPS in my body grow upwards of more than a hundred-fold just from holding receipts is mind boggling,” said Malas.
BPA AND BPS CONCERNS
Today in Canada, BPA is most commonly found in food and drink containers such as cans and water bottles and is linked to obesity and infertility, among other health problems.
Health Canada’s latest Canadian Health Measures Survey revealed that nine out of 10 Canadians have BPA in their systems.
BPA is known for its hormone disrupting effects and is linked to a wide range of health issues including diabetes, ADHD in children and hormone-based cancers in the breast and prostate, EDC said.
Vasantha Rupasinghe, a Dalhousie University professor who does research on BPA and BPS, said he was surprised at how much of the material was absorbed through the skin in the EDC experiment.
“When we compare the two compounds at same concentrations what we found was the damage was pretty much the same,” he said. “I think the responsible authorities like Health Canada need to pay attention to these new substitutes used in preparing these plastic-based material in food packaging and test their toxicity and whether they are harmful for human health.”
The findings have also worried union leaders representing retail workers.
"I mean a lot of them don't even know that these chemicals exist," United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Canada health and safety representative Mary Shaw told CTV News. "They are not being informed by their employers either which is incredibly frustrating."
The union has suggested that cashiers wear protective gloves unless safer alternatives are used to existing thermal paper receipts. That stance was even espoused in a fall 2018 edition of “Checkout,” UFCW Canada’s news magazine.
Cashier and retail sales jobs are also among the two most common occupations for women in Canada.
A significant portion of these women are of childbearing age and may face unacceptable health risks because of exposure to BPA and BPS on the job, the EDC researchers concluded.
“It is even more alarming that this is happening within the bodies of hundreds of thousands of women and teenage cashiers who are more biologically vulnerable to the effects of these chemicals and who handle dozens of receipts daily,” Malas said.
The European Union has already taken action, banning the use of BPA in receipts beginning next year.
Dow Chemical and German paper group Koehler have also jointly won a U.S. Environment Protection Agency award for developing a thermal printing paper that does not need chemicals such as BPA or BPS.
The EDC environmentalists have also launched a petition to push Ottawa to increase safety testing of chemicals before they are used.
“BPA is just one of many harmful chemicals that we are exposed to every day,” Lourie said. “The onus lies on governments to do the right thing, protect public health, and make sure that these kinds of chemicals aren’t being used.”
According to EDC, Health Canada doesn’t consider BPA exposure a significant risk to Canadians, as average exposures are below the levels considered harmful, EDC said.
Health Canada banned the use of BPA in baby bottles nine years ago, the first country to do so.
In a statement sent to CTV News, a Health Canada spokesperson said that the federal department “is committed to protecting Canadians from harmful substances” and “is aware of the use of Bisphenol A (BPA) in the production of thermal paper.”
“At this time, Health Canada has not concluded that BPA in thermal receipt paper is a significant source of exposure for the general population,” the statement read. “Currently, there are no plans to ban the use of BPA and Bisphenol S (BPS) on receipts.”
“It is important for Canadians to understand that just because a chemical may be detected in our bodies, it does not necessarily mean it is causing harm,” the statement added. “Health Canada also continues to assess new research on BPA and BPS and, if necessary, will not hesitate to take appropriate action to protect the health and safety of Canadians.”
10 MILLION METRIC TONNES
Despite these health concerns, the use of BPA in consumer products continues to grow.
In 2016, around eight million metric tonnes of BPA were used globally and its consumption is projected to grow to 10.6 million metric tons by 2022.
Meanwhile, Professor Patricia Hunt from Washington State University’s school of molecular biosciences, warned that while people can reduce exposure, they can’t eliminate it entirely because it is in our food, water and air.
“It is true if you ingest them they are rapidly eliminated, but it’s not true if you take them into the skin they are rapidly eliminated. We are being constantly exposed,” she said. “These are chemicals that behave like hormones or interfere with hormones. And hormones can do their work at low, low levels. The low doses are equally dangerous perhaps even more so.”
EDC is calling for a ban on the use of bisphenol-based thermal paper by 2021 and for a clampdown on bisphenols that could lead to human or environmental exposure.
Thermal paper printing uses heat to turn the BPA or BPS coating into text and numbers without the use of ink.
“Canada should quickly move to ban bisphenols in receipts,” Malas said.
The study also recommended receipt-handling training for cashiers and called on retailers to use e-receipts or bisphenol-free paper.
EDC suggested consumers hold the unprinted side of the receipt and wash their hands after handling.
It also said receipts should not be recycled as they contaminate the recycling stream.
Canada’s second largest food retailer Sobeys told CTV News that its receipt paper is BPA free, but does contain BPS.
“When the report is released, we will go through the new findings in full detail and investigate alternatives,” a Sobeys spokeswoman told CTV News.
The Retail Council of Canada declined to comment specifically on the EDC study, saying in an emailed statement that it does not “comment on business decisions including the sourcing of supplies and equipment” but will “advise our member retailers of its findings and recommendations” following a “thorough review” of that material.
“That said, MANY retailers have switched their cashier receipts to paper that does not contain Bisphenol A (BPA),” the statement added. “In addition, retailers are increasingly moving to electronic receipts which removes the need for printed paper (including digital and online receipts).”