Super-Sized BPA: Why Receipts and Greasy Fingers Shouldn’t Mix | Civil Eats

Super-Sized BPA: Why Receipts and Greasy Fingers Shouldn’t Mix

French fries BPA

An order of French fries may be bad for your health in ways that extend well beyond the outsize calorie count. According to a new study out today by scientists at the University of Missouri, people who used hand sanitizer, touched a cash register receipt, and then ate French fries were quickly exposed to high levels of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical widely used to coat receipt paper.

BPA has been identified as an endocrine disrupting chemical for its ability to interfere with estrogen and other hormones. In human and animal studies, BPA exposure has been linked to adverse effects on the reproductive and neurological systems as well as increased risk for obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Some animal studies also suggest that BPA can set the stage for certain cancers, including breast and prostate cancer.

The study, published in PLOS One, is the first to show how handling BPA-coated receipt can account for exposure at levels that have been shown to harm health.

Most studies of BPA exposure, including those that have informed current regulation of the chemical, have focused on exposure that happens through food or after BPA passes through the gut, explains study author Frederick S. vom Saal, Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

But this study shows that skin absorption of BPA appears to lead to higher levels of biologically active BPA in the body than when the chemical is digested with food. When scientists added in two other factors–scrubbing hands with hand sanitizer and eating greasy food–the evidence points to a super-sized dose of BPA.

“The chemicals used to make hand sanitizers, soaps, lotions, and sunscreen degrade the skin’s ability to act as a barrier and so act as skin penetration enhancers,” says vom Saal. So the BPA enters the body more efficiently than it would otherwise. Food grease and other oils can act similarly because BPA itself is fat-soluble, explains vom Saal.

Vom Saal also explains that BPA can be absorbed rapidly by tissue in the mouth so that the chemical enters the body without first being metabolized–or broken down in digestion.

“The combination of dermal and oral BPA absorption led to a rapid and dramatic average maximum increase in unconjugated (bioactive) BPA…in blood and urine within 90 minutes,” write the study authors. In experiments, BPA was absorbed by people who held a receipt for as little as two seconds. The amounts absorbed in the study “are in a zone where effects associated with obesity, diabetes and neurological effects can result,” says vom Saal.

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Many laboratory studies have shown that BPA can produce health effects at very low levels of exposure—or just a few parts per trillion. BPA has also been shown to effect developing embryos, which means a mother’s exposure to BPA can affect her children. Some studies have shown that a single BPA exposure can affect even a third generation as the chemical has the potential to alter the ovary and eggs of the exposed fetus. At the same time many studies have found associations between BPA exposure in humans and the health effects found in lab studies.

Given the concern about BPA’s health effects, manufacturers of baby bottles and toddler’s sippy cups have largely stopped using it. In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration withdrew its approval for use of BPA in these products. But its use is still allowed in other products that come into contact with food. Industry trade associations, including the American Chemistry Council, maintain that BPA is safe and that average exposure levels, including from receipts, are not harmful.

Meanwhile, 12 different states have passed laws barring BPA in various products–primarily food and beverage containers intended for use by children. Only one state, Connecticut, has passed a law banning use of BPA in receipts.

But simply switching to another chemical may not solve the problem. As vom Saal and his coauthors point out in this study, a common BPA alternative used in receipts is bisphenol S, which can also interfere with estrogen. In fact, in its assessment of available alternatives for receipts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found no chemical that was clearly safer than BPA. “What we need,” says vom Saal, “is an alternate technology.”

In the meantime, it appears that grabbing the fast food receipt before snacking on French fries may not only be packing on the extra calories. It might also be disrupting our hormones.

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Elizabeth Grossman was a senior reporter for Civil Eats from 2014 to 2017, where she focused on environmental and science issues. She is the author of Chasing Molecules, High Tech Trash, Watershed and other books. Her work appeared in a variety of publications, including National Geographic News, The Guardian, The Intercept, Scientific American, Environmental Health Perspectives, Yale e360, Ensia, High Country News, The Washington Post, Salon, The Nation, and Mother Jones. She passed away in July 2017, leaving behind a legacy of dedication to her mission of journalism that supports and protects people and the planet. Read more >

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  1. Joyce Acebo-Raguskus
    Thank you for acknowledging Connecticut too, (first in the nation to ban BPA). Good article with common sense of transference of such toxic chemicals as BPA.
    Back to washing hands with hot non toxic soap and water before reaching for finger foods!
    Joyce
    Clean Water Action, Advocate, Coalition for A Safe & Healthy CT
  2. WOW. While awesome that this has been banned form baby bottles, how shameful it is that companies continue to use it in other products. Go CT! Thank you to Clean Water Action and Anne Hulick's team!
  3. Sam J.
    What about the people working in the food industry who handle receipts everyday all day.
  4. Wow, the BPA is a nasty chemical.

    But one take away from this study is: the increased germophobia in the US characterized by the ubiquitous site of hand santizer isn't necessarily helping us!

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