Researchers reported Tuesday that the chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) was found in the urine of people who had been handling receipts coated in the chemical earlier in the day, indicating that the chemical was absorbed through the hands.
Though it remains unclear what this could mean for the health of everyday shoppers, it does raise concerns about inadvertent exposure to potentially dangerous chemicals.
BPA is a chemical additive used in certain types of plastics and epoxy resins. Clear, tear-resistant and waterproof, it has been used in the glaze or lacquer of a multitude of consumer goods, including CDs and DVDs, baby and water bottles and sports equipment. It also has industrial uses, like providing a water barrier for pipes. Thermal paper uses BPA as a protective top-coating in order to protect the heat-sensitive paper from the heat of the thermal print heads.
Typically, BPA enters a person’s system by leaching from BPA-treated food containers into the food itself. Microwavable or heatable containers, such as baby bottles, are more prone to BPA-leaching than other forms of BPA containers.
Currently, there is open debate on the danger of BPA exposure. In 2010, the Food and Drug Administration identified the chemical as being potentially hazardous to fetuses, infants and small children. This led to the chemical’s deauthorization for use in baby bottles, sippy cups and infant formula packaging.
However, the FDA maintains that the chemical is safe and that the deauthorization was based on market abandonment of this use of the chemical. The European Union and Canada have determined that BPA is safe “when used as intended,” but presents an unacceptable risk to vulnerable individuals. BPA has been linked to both obesity and increased heart disease risk.
BPA is relatively simple to avoid. Besides receipt paper, plastic containers treated with BPA have a recycle code of three or seven.
A litany of potentially dangerous chemicals other than BPA appear in products consumers use every day. In December, the FDA announced rule changes regarding antibacterial liquid soap. The rule changes focused on the use of triclosan, the most common antibacterial agent found in consumer-grade soap. Triclosan, classified as a pesticide by the FDA, has been found to increase sensitivity to inhaled allergens and could potentially disrupt the body’s production of hormones. More dangerously, the chemical has been found to raise antibiotic resistance among new bacterial strains without providing any improvement in disinfection capability over regular soap.
The list of “bad actor” chemicals present in commonly-available consumer goods reads like a cautionary tale. Phthalate, which is used as a fragrance mixer in some cosmetics and lotions, has been linked to reproductive abnormalities, reduced testosterone and sperm quality in men, and the early onset of puberty in girls. Formaldehyde releasers in certain shampoos, conditioners, bubble baths and other personal care products add formaldehyde, a preservative known to be a human carcinogen, to the solution in the bottle as a mold killer. It is estimated that one-fifth of all personal care cosmetic products currently on the market contain formaldehyde releasers.
Other “bad actor” chemicals — parabens, retinyl palmitate, retinoic acid, triclosan, triclocarban and lead acetate — are commonly found in consumer goods.
It is essential for the consumer to be proactive in investigating what he or she is buying and sharing with his or her family. While it is impossible to shield oneself from every potential “bad actor,” it is important to ask questions and not take the safety or purity of commonly-used things for granted.