Dirty Money? Controversial Chemical BPA Found on Dollar Bills

By Jennifer Welsh | December 8, 2010 12:46 pm

receiptsA report (pdf) by the Washington Toxics Coalition found that the potentially harmful plastic chemical Bisphenol A is present in low levels on most money and about half of thermal paper receipts tested in a small study. As many researchers are concerned about the possible health effects of the hormone-disrupting chemical, this new evidence of BPA’s ubiquity in our modern lives is setting off new alarms. But are the levels found on money and receipts significant?

While most customers worry about ingesting BPA due to its presence in plastic bottles, canned foods linings, and other plastic containers, it can also be absorbed through the skin, says the coalition. Thermal paper (frequently used in receipts) is often made with a coating of BPA powder, which could be an unexplored exposure route to the chemical–especially for cashiers.

The coalition tested 22 thermal paper receipts and 22 dollar bills collected from around the country. Eleven of the receipts were positive for BPA (comprising up to 2.2 percent of the total receipt weight) and 21 of the dollar bills were, though at much lower levels. The researchers suggest that BPA may be tranferred from receipts to money when people handle them together or stuff them together into a wallet.

“Our findings demonstrate that BPA cannot be avoided, even by the most conscious consumer,” said Erika Schreder, Staff Scientist at the Washington Toxics Coalition and lead author of the report. “This unregulated use of large amounts of BPA is having unintended consequences, including exposure to people when we touch receipts.” [press release]

The researchers conducted tests to see if BPA could be transferred to hands while holding and crumpling the receipts. They found that a small amount, between 0.97 and 2.5 micrograms, was transferred by holding and a higher level, 27 to 31 micrograms, was transferred by crumpling (but only four receipts were tested total). The coalition says these results suggest that skin absorption of BPA could match the exposure that Americans routinely get from food, but BPA defenders argue the skin exposure route is already accounted for in our national guidelines:

“Typical exposure from all sources is about 1,000 times below safe intake levels set by government bodies in Europe and the U.S.,” said Steven Hentges, director of the Polycarbonate/BPA group at the American Chemistry Council. “In comparison, the trace levels of BPA claimed to be present in dollar bills are insignificant.” [San Francisco Chronicle]

The two non-profit advocacy groups who funded the study, The Washington Toxics Coalition and Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, are pushing for Congress to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act, to increase regulation of potentially toxic chemicals like BPA.

“Companies are using large amounts of BPA on receipt paper and now it’s winding up on our hands and on our money,” said Erika S[c]hreder author of “On the Money: BPA in Dollar Bills and Receipts.” “Congress really needs to pass legislation that reduces exposure to chemicals that can cause cancer and other diseases that are on the rise in this country.” [San Francisco Chronicle]

The jury is still out on the health effects and safe exposure levels of BPA. Some research indicates that the endocrine disruptor can cause everything from cancer and diabetes to early puberty and male reproductive problems, but the level at which it is toxic isn’t agreed upon. And while Canada declared BPA a “toxic substance” in September, the U.S. federal government has moved more slowly. The Food and Drug Adminstration said in January that is has “some concern” over the chemical’s health effects, and declared that the agency would take “reasonable steps” to reduce exposure.

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Image: Flickr/ben_onthemove

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • scott

    another reason why we need regulations and government policies to ban all this crud….i am sure most companies want to keep it as is, as to not have to pay for new process that might raise prices and be passed on to the consumer – which, as we know, consumption is the most important thing on economic front, more so than peoples health, etc.

    “would you like your receipt?” – no thank you, or…in the bag please…

  • Iain

    I don’t think the levels matter nearly as much as how transmissible it is. This to me is where some research needs to go. A substance with 20% by weight BPA which is locked into ‘the matrix’ of the substance poses less risk than something with 10 ppm which is easily transmittable.


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