money flickr elycefelizHere’s bad news for anyone who hoped that tossing cups and canned food would help them avoid exposure to bisphenol A (BPA). A new study found the hormone-disrupting chemical on 21 out of 22 dollar bills collected from wallets in Washington, Oregon and other states around the US.

The study released today by the Washington Toxics Coalition and the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition is the first to measure how widely our paper currency is contaminated with BPA, an estrogen mimic that has been linked to elevated cancer risks, altered brain development in children, early puberty and obesity. And, as we’ve seen before, you find it almost everywhere you look.

So how did it get on our money?

One can’t say for sure, but the most obvious culprits are receipts from grocery stores, gas stations, ATM machines and other retail outlets, which we typically stuff without thinking into wallets and purses along with dollar bills (and gum and pens and other things we put in our mouths.) A lot of the world’s “thermal paper” used to cheaply print receipts, shipping labels and luggage tags contains BPA. And unlike contaminated sippy cups or baby bottles that have alarmed parents and state lawmakers (in which the chemical is relatively bound up in the plastic), the BPA on receipts is free and transfers easily to fingers and skin and other things it comes into contact with.

The new study found BPA on half of 22 receipts collected from retailers in 10 states. The stores that dispensed BPA receipts included a California Safeway, a Washington state Fred Meyer, a Sunoco gas station in New York and the US House of Representatives cafeteria. (In the worst case BPA made up 2.2 percent of the receipt’s total weight!)

The levels of BPA found on dollar bills were miniscule compared to those found directly on the store receipts (a high of 11 parts per million for money vs. 22,000 parts per million for the receipts.) This suggests that while our exposure to BPA from money may be far less problematic than from receipts directly, the chemical is being transferred in ways we didn’t realize before.

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  • It turns out, for instance, that nearly 30 percent of Europe’s thermal paper winds up in the paper recycling stream and goes on to contaminate other consumer products. Researchers there and in Japan have found BPA in recycled paper towels, paper food boxes, toilet paper and wastewater.

    So what do all these discoveries mean for you or your family? The study tested how BPA transfers from receipts to human skin (easily), but that’s a hard question to answer with specificity for any individual or toxic chemical. The study found that a shopper who crumples five receipts in a day is probably getting as much exposure to BPA as through canned food, thought to be the most common  exposure route. But the ubiquitousness of BPA means it’s virtually impossible for a consumer who wants to avoid it to do so.

    I regularly tell clerks I don’t want a receipt, but sometimes I need them for record keeping. So they wind up poking out of my wallet and rummaging around in my purse, despite my best intentions. Plus, I never know which receipts I’m offered contain BPA. And even if stores try to do the right thing by choosing BPA-free thermal paper, the report raises questions about how much better the alternatives to BPA really are.

    So here’s what would make my life a lot simpler. What if the government put the burden of proof on companies that use chemicals in their dishes, toys, receipts, and other products to make sure they’re safe?  As we’ve seen from recalls of cadmium-laced Shrek glasses to leaden kids’ necklaces, that’s not happening. The report highlights huge holes in the federal Toxic Substances Control Act and endorses HR 5820, a reform bill that would:

    • require industries to prove that chemicals on the market meet health-based safety standards
    • make it harder to keep information about chemicals in consumer products secret
    • reduce exposures in communities identified as chemical “hot spots”
    • reward innovation that leads to new, safer chemicals

    When it comes to protecting the public, that’s the solution I’d rather put my money on.

    Money photo courtesy of flickr user elycefeliz via a Creative Commons license.