Workers Health & Safety Centre

Sales receipts pose toxic exposures, evidence mounts

Harmful endocrine-disrupting chemicals are readily absorbed into the bodies of workers and consumers when handling common sales receipts, a recent Canadian experiment confirms.
Thermal paper used to produce receipts in cash registers, credit card terminals and other printing devices are coated with the endocrine-disrupting chemical (EDC) Bisphenol A (BPA) or, increasingly, a controversial substitute chemical Bisphenol S (BPS).

Alarming exposures

Muhannad Malas, Toxics Program Manager at the Canadian advocacy organization, Environmental Defense and a colleague, along with co-authors of the book, Slow Death by Rubber Duck, partnered to see how much of these harmful chemicals are absorbed through the skin from point of sale receipts, tickets and passes printed on thermal paper. They handled these items for the same amount of time a cashier would over an eight-hour shift (approximately 15 minutes).
“To see the level of BPA and BPS in my body grow upwards of a hundred-fold just from holding receipts is mind boggling,” says Malas. “It is even more alarming that this is happening in the bodies of hundreds of thousands of women and teenage cashiers who are more biologically vulnerable to the effects of these chemicals.”
Less than 10 hours after the experiment, urine samples showed levels of BPA spiking 42 times higher than samples taken prior to exposure. The controversial substitute for BPA, BPS registered up to 115 times higher. These findings support what other scientific evidence has found in terms of the significant levels of exposure for workers who handle receipts.
The most significant increase for both chemicals in this experiment occurred in the participant who applied hand sanitizer before the experiment. This particular finding supports prior research that found accelerated absorption rates for those using lotions and sanitizers.
“The scale of chemical increase that I saw in my body is probably due to my use of hand sanitizer before the experiment,” says Rick Smith, co-author of Slow Death by Rubber Duck and experiment participant. “Given that many people, including cashiers, use hand sanitizer on a daily basis, this is a huge cause for concern.”

Significant health risks

BPA is an endocrine disrupting chemical that can interfere with the body’s hormone system which regulates various aspects of growth, development and reproduction. Even low levels of exposure, especially in pregnant women, fetuses, babies, young children and workers handling receipts daily can be damaging. This is of particular concern considering 250,000 women in Canada worked as cashiers in 2016, many of whom are of childbearing age. Studies have also linked BPA to other negative health impacts including damage to the liver, kidneys along with prostate and breast cancer.
Unfortunately, the substitute many have turned to in place of BPA on thermal receipts, BPS has similar chemical structure and a growing body of research suggests it is also endocrine disrupting. Equally concerning is research suggesting BPS is 19 times more readily absorbed through the skin than BPA.
“What we know is that many companies have moved away from BPA in receipts in the past few years, but have unknowingly switched to BPS receipts that are marketed as BPA-free,” say Malas. “This is a perfect illustration of the failure of Canada’s toxics law to adequately protect Canadians and help businesses replace harmful chemicals with safer ones.”

Evidence supports action

It has been 10 years since the Canadian government formally declared BPA toxic and responded to public outcry by banning the sale of baby bottles containing this harmful chemical. Despite the wealth of scientific evidence of the risk to health, regulatory efforts here in Canada to reduce environmental and workplace exposures have been stalled.
Other jurisdictions are making progress. France banned the use of BPA in food and drink packaging and thermal receipt paper in 2015. (Although, the French courts did overturn the ban on the use of BPA in food containers destined for the export market.). The European Union’s ban on BPA in receipts comes into force in 2020. California is considering similar action.
Environmental Defense Canada is asking you to join with them in petitioning the federal government to ban the use of BPA and BPS in receipts. They also recommend the government act to ensure safer alternatives are used instead.
Environmental Defense and unions representing retail workers also recommend retailers switch to bisphenol-free receipt paper, offer consumers e-receipts and provide workers with non-toxic protective gloves. They also call on consumers to play an important advocacy role by asking retailers for e-receipts and inquiring about the toxicity of paper receipts. Further, they encourage workers to act on their right to participate and press employers to eliminate these hazardous exposures.
Many Canadian health and environmental groups have called for a broader ban on BPA, but also for strengthened chemical management laws and mandatory labelling of products known to contain endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).
Related resources:
EDC receipts and safer alternatives
Canadian study on occupational exposure to EDCs
Scientific justification to address endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) 
Regulation an important driver of workplace chemical substitution, report finds
Web-based resources highlight harmful chemicals and safer alternatives 

The WHSC offers a number of training programs and resources to help workplaces better understand their legal duties and responsibilities related to workplace hazards, including endocrine disruptors and other toxic substances. Many of these same programs offer essential insight into the tools and information needed to identify and control or eliminate harmful workplace toxins.
To learn more:
Call:   1-888-869-7950 and ask to speak to a training service representative