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Environmental News


From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that Bisphenol A (BPA)—which is harmful to human health—was found to be present in retail cash register receipts and that, since those receipts get recycled, the chemical may also be present in toilet paper and other paper products?
—Jocelyn Mitchell, via e-mail

Laboratory tests found high levels of BPA on 40 percent of thermal paper receipts sampled from major U.S. businesses and services.

Photo © iStockPhoto/Thinkstock

Many of us already know the risks associated with regular use of products containing the plastic hardener and synthetic estrogen Bisphenol A (BPA)—and have switched over to BPA-free water and baby bottles and food storage containers. But the recent revelation that many of the receipts handed around every day in the U.S. contain the chemical has been a real shocker to those already worried about BPA exposure.

Many thermal papers used in the U.S.—receipts, event tickets, labels—contain so-called “free” BPA (that is, not bound into resin or plastic), which helps “develop” the inks to make the printed information visible. “While there is little concern for dermal absorption of BPA, free BPA can readily be transferred to skin and residues on hands can be ingested,” reports the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Laboratory tests commissioned by the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) and carried out by the University of Missouri Division of Biological Sciences Laboratory in 2010 found high levels of BPA on 40 percent of receipts sampled from major U.S. businesses and services, including McDonald’s, Chevron, CVS, KFC, Whole Foods, WalMart, Safeway and the U.S. Postal Service, among others.

“The total amounts of BPA on receipts tested were 250 to 1,000 times greater than other, more widely discussed sources of BPA exposure, including canned foods, baby bottles and infant formula,” reported EWG. Wipe tests conducted by the lab easily removed BPA “indicating that the chemical could rub off on the hands of a person handling the receipt.”

While BPA contamination of food is still a bigger problem, says EWG, a large number of Americans—especially the seven million who run cash registers—are nonetheless exposed to additional amounts of BPA through handling receipts. An EWG analysis of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data found that retail workers carry an average of 30 percent more BPA in their bodies than other adults.

Another more exhaustive study of BPA in thermal paper receipts and 14 other types of papers found the chemical in a whopping 94 percent of samples from the U.S., Japan, Korea and Vietnam. The State University of New York researchers behind the study, which was published in September 2011 in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology, estimate that receipts and other thermal paper products contribute around 33.5 tons of BPA to the environment in the U.S. and Canada each year. Even more disturbing was their finding that BPA in thermal paper receipts also contaminates paper recycling and is showing up in napkins, toilet paper and other common papers with recycled content.

On a more encouraging note, Wisconsin’s Appleton Papers, the world’s largest thermal paper maker, removed BPA from its products in 2006. And the EPA has since launched a program to evaluate the safety and availability of alternatives to BPA in thermal paper. Public health advocates and environmentalists, of course, would like to see BPA phased out entirely.

CONTACTS: EPA; EWG; “Widespread Occurrence of Bisphenol A in Paper and Paper Products: Implications for Human Exposure,” Environmental Science & Technology.



Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental implications of the road ahead as laid out by President Obama in his recent State of the Union?
—Marilyn Pike, Bethesda, MD

Obama's State of the Union address was, in the words of one prominent green leader, "a strong defense of the importance of clean energy to America’s long-term economic prosperity."

Photo © Pete Souza/White House photo

The economy dominated President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, but his discussion about energy and the environment took up almost seven minutes—or nine percent—of the hour-plus address. And while much of what Mr. Obama said was comforting to environmentalists, his statements about expanding natural gas production—albeit “without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk”—and opening up more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources did not sit well.

Even so, natural gas is cleaner burning than oil or coal, and reducing our reliance on foreign oil is a good thing overall. “Right now American oil production is the highest that it’s been in eight years,” Mr. Obama said, adding that “…last year we relied less on foreign oil than in any of the past 16 years.”
Michelle Wilson Berger of the National Audubon Society points out that when George W. Bush told us in his 2006 State of the Union that the U.S. was addicted to foreign oil, some 60 percent was coming from foreign sources. “Now it’s just less than half,” Berger says, adding: “The trend is going to continue in that positive direction and within a couple decades, it’s going to be even less, say something like 36 percent.”

Nonetheless, environmental advocates were hoping for less bullish talk from Obama on expanding fossil fuel development of any kind, given the dire climate predictions we are facing. But Obama isn’t giving up his commitment to renewables, despite the recent bankruptcy of solar panel maker Solyndra after it had received upwards of $500 million in loan guarantees. “Some technologies don’t pan out; some companies fail,” stated Obama in the speech. “But I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy.”

Obama also called on Congress to pass a new standard aimed at boosting wind, solar, geothermal and other renewables, and to extend related tax credits to help diversify and green the country’s energy mix, adding that he wants to end tax subsidies for oil companies. In underscoring that Americans don’t have to choose between the economy and the environment, he cited the case of the revival of the American auto industry thanks in part to automakers’ willingness to innovate to meet aggressive fuel economy standards.

Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund considers Obama’s State of the Union “a strong defense of the importance of clean energy to America’s long-term economic prosperity.”

Speeches aside, 2011 wasn’t a bad year for Obama on the environment. He proposed raising the average fuel efficiency standard for new cars to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025—this alone, says Natural Resources Defense Council’s Frances Beinecke, “will save drivers more than $80 billion a year at the pump and cut our annual oil use by more than the amount we imported from Saudi Arabia and Iraq in 2010.” Obama’s recent rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline project—which would have transported dirty Alberta tar sands oil across U.S. soil—was another triumph, as were establishing the first national standards to limit mercury and other air toxins from power plants, proposing a visionary national oceans policy, protecting the Grand Canyon from uranium mining, and supporting clean energy investments at record levels.

CONTACTS: White House State of the Union 2012.








GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at:, or e-mail: Read past columns at:


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