Public is exposed daily to industrial chemical's traces
By Delthia Ricks
Consumers who handle recycled paper products are being inadvertently exposed to a widely used industrial chemical that continues to raise health concerns, a state Health Department study has found.
Investigators tracked the contamination to cash register receipts coated with bisphenol A that are being dumped into the nation's recycling stream.
An estimated 33.5 tons of BPA are on the thermal-paper receipts handed out each year in the United States, said Kurunthachalam Kannan, a researcher at Wadsworth Center, the state's public health laboratory.
Kannan and his colleagues documented for the first time how much BPA can be absorbed through normal handling of the receipts and how the chemical fails to dissipate even after the paper slips are remade into other products.
Studies have tentatively linked BPA exposure to elevated risks for breast, prostate and testicular cancers, as well as several behavioral disorders.
Two years ago, Suffolk adopted the nation's first ban on infant products containing BPA, such as sippy cups and teething rings. The state followed with a similar ban last year.
The new analysis, published last week in Environmental Science and Technology, found trace amounts of BPA in napkins, paper towels, toilet tissue, lottery tickets, paper money, newspapers, magazines, envelopes and food cartons.
For more than a year ending last spring, scientists collected dozens of paper samples from 58 locations, including supermarkets, banks, convenience stores, gas stations, restaurants and fast-food outlets, in Albany, New York City, Buffalo, Boston, Chicago, Weston, Vt., and Charlotte, N.C.
The study estimates that workers at such locations handle the slick thermal receipts 150 times a day. The public handles the receipts at least twice daily, and has contact with other BPA-containing paper products at least 10 times a day.
Researchers estimated the amount of BPA absorbed through the skin ranged from 17.5 nanograms daily for consumers to 1,300 nanograms for workers whose jobs require constant handling of BPA-coated receipts.
The effects of human exposure are a contentious public health issue. The amount of BPA required to do harm, Kannan acknowledges in his analysis, has yet to be established.
The Manhattan-based American Council on Science and Health and other pro-industry groups have defended the use of BPA, saying health studies have been inconclusive.
A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that girls - born of mothers with relatively high urinary concentrations of BPA during pregnancy - were more likely to have serious behavioral problems by age 3.
A growing number of retailers and financial firms, however, have stopped using BPA-coated receipts, including Target and Bank of America. Some companies offer consumers the choice of having receipts emailed to them.
BPA is a weak estrogen first synthesized in the 1930s as hormone-replacement therapy for menopausal women. When it failed as a medication, industrial manufacturers found other uses for it, particularly as an additive in plastics. BPA is added to receipts to help them slide easily out of cash registers.
On Long Island, activists said the study raises new health questions.
"We would like to see people whose jobs require them to handle paper receipts be required to wear gloves," said Karen Joy Miller, who heads the Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition. Laura Weinberg, who heads the Great Neck Breast Cancer Coalition, supports a major federal effort to find BPA substitutes.
"The hope is to find safer alternatives," she said.
What is it?
Bisphenol A is an industrial compound largely used in the production of plastics, but also in other industrial processes, such as production of thermal paper for cash register receipts.
How much of it is produced annually?
An estimated 8 billion pounds.
Do people have it in their bodies?
According to studies, 92 percent of Americans have trace levels of BPA in their bodily tissues and fluids.
How does it get into the body?
Largely through consumption of foods from BPA-tainted containers, but also through skin absorption and inhalation.
Is it dangerous?
Some health organizations insist it's safe. Others suggest BPA may raise the risk for some forms of cancer and behavioral problems in children.
Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Kurunthachalam Kannan, NY State Dept. Department of Health