All kinds of receipts and tickets contain the potentially toxic compound, which sanitizer helps our bodies to absorb.
At the base of CityLab’s office building is one of the best Mediterranean lunch spots you’ll find. Next to the cash register sits a giant jug of hand sanitizer, which I use immoderately each time I pay. It is flu season, after all.
I say “thank you,” grab my receipt, and proceed to rip into my falafel. Nothing out of the ordinary.
But according to a new study from researchers at the University of Missouri, my regular practice of applying hand sanitizer then touching a print receipt could be funneling harmful toxicants into my body.
Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the study found "high levels of BPA" in nearly 50 percent of fast food receipts examined. Linked to heart disease and hormonal dysfunction, the chemical compound is also apparently all over the restaurant checks, ATM statements, and airline tickets we handle every day. Hand sanitizers, as well as certain soaps, lotions, and sunscreens, make our hands absorb BPA more easily, allowing it to travel through our bodies from the skin. (Or mouth, if we then eat. Yikes.)
According to the study, fast-food restaurant clientele tend to hold onto their receipts, rather than stuffing them into pockets or wallets. In a test at a local food court, customers who held onto receipts for 45 seconds immediately after using Purell had a maximum 581 micrograms of BPA on their palms and fingers—a "significant" amount, according to the researchers. After holding the receipt for two seconds, 40 percent of that maximum was found, and within 15 seconds, 58 percent was recovered. (After 45 seconds, BPA accumulation levels dropped.)
BPA accumulated much faster on the hands of restaurant-goers who used hand sanitizer before accepting their receipt compared to those with dry hands. Even without Purell, though, subjects accumulated BPA.
*Some doubt the real-world practicalities of this study, however. The FDA has assured Americans that contact between BPA and food materials is not a health risk. "[M]uch of the data presented in this new study has very limited relevance to the potential for human exposure scenarios," the American Chemistry Council argues.
“The main thing is just how complicated this issue of exposure is,” says Dr. Lynn R. Goldman, Dean of the Milken Institute of Public Health at George Washington University. “We might be eating and handling a receipt at the same time… Or we might be working in our office and using hand sanitizer and handling different papers. And that can effect the way a chemical is absorbed by the body.”
From now on, I'll request an “email receipt” when I grab my falafel sandwich.
*This post has been updated with comments and input from Steven G. Hentges of the American Chemistry Council's Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group.