PITTSBURGH — We handle them just about every day when we grab something to eat, stop for a coffee, get gas or make a purchase; but, most of us don’t know the chemicals we’re being exposed to from receipts could disrupt hormones in our bodies, potentially leading to serious illnesses like cardiovascular disease, cancer and metabolic disorders.
11 Investigates took a deep dive into what’s in our receipts and what we can do to limit our exposure to toxic chemicals. We shopped all around Pittsburgh, collecting receipts from retailers large and small. Together, 11 Investigates and our Cox Media Group sister stations collected 245 receipts from 150 businesses across eight states.
We got to work, numbering each receipt, folding them print-side in to avoid contamination, logging the location, the date of purchase and the retailer. We then stuffed them into an envelope and mailed them to the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Gillian Miller is a senior scientist. She analyzes data to determine which chemicals are in the thermal coating on receipt paper.
“Unfortunately, the coating on there that allows this fast thermal printing process contains hazardous chemicals, historically,” Miller tells 11 Investigates.
Most receipts used to contain: Bisphenol A, or BPA.
“Which is now very well known as a hormone-disrupting chemical that’s associated with a lot of developmental effects and potentially contributing to cancer risk and various other disease risks,” Miller adds.
Six out of 245 receipts we tested at the Ecology Center contained BPA. That’s less than 2.5%. None were from national chains. While most retailers have moved away from BPA, it’s often replaced with Bisphenol S or BPS.
“Which actually turns out to be a similarly hazardous material,” Miller tells 11 Investigates.
BPS was in 80% of the receipts we tested. Miller says this is pretty standard across the country with most receipts.
“The reason we worry about a chemical like BPA and BPS is that when they get into our bodies, they act like estrogen and disrupt other hormones in our bodies,” Laura Vandenberg tells us.
Vandenberg is a researcher at UMass Amherst who studies how the chemicals in receipts affect us.
“When we look at people who have higher levels of exposure, they’re more likely to have metabolic disease, they’re more likely to have neurological conditions, they’re more likely to develop certain cancers and fertility problems,” Vandenberg says.
Vandenberg says these are chemicals we shouldn’t be exposed to and we should keep away from our children.
“You can change their development in a way you can’t unchange,” Vandenberg adds.
Scientists say retail employees have the highest levels of exposure to chemicals on receipts and studies have shown that workers who have regular contact with receipts have 30% more BPA or BPS in their bodies.
We collected six receipts from Target stores in different states. One contained BPS despite Target’s 2020 commitment to go phenol-free. Target did not return our request for comment.
Three out of five receipts from Walgreens contained BPS even though the pharmacy giant promised to move to phenol-free receipt paper by the end of 2023.
Costco store receipts were phenol-free but one gas station receipt contained BPS. Costco says it’s working to phase out receipts with BPS at gas pumps.
Locally, Sheetz, Giant Eagle and Kuhn’s receipts all contained BPS. Each of the companies said they’re going to work with their paper supplier to move to phenol-free paper. Giant Eagle made the commitment to make this transition to a safer option in a matter of weeks.
CVS also offers a digital receipt option, which the pharmacy chain says saves millions of yards of receipt paper each year and ensures our recycling isn’t contaminated with chemicals like BPA or BPS. Locally, Ruckus Coffee Gallery also offers a digital receipt option.
Vandenberg says the best thing you can do is say no thanks for a receipt or opt for a digital option.
“We’re going to start playing chemical wack-a-mole. Down goes BPA, down goes BPS, what pops up next instead?” Vandenberg says. “Why would you think that what’s on this receipt is hazardous if we’re handling it to you in a place where you eat or if we’re handing it to you at the grocery store, right? You would not. It’s not the fault of people.”
If you do handle receipts often, think twice about using hand sanitizer. Scientists say the alcohol in the hand sanitizer actually helps chemicals get through the skin. The safest way to clean your hands is with soap and water.
It’s also important to note that about 15% of the receipts we tested contained phenol-free alternatives. Those receipts were from national chains, including Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, CVS, Marshalls, TJ Maxx, HomeGoods and others.
We also heard from the receipt paper industry, “The Paper Receipt Converting Association.” They point out, like we found, most companies have discontinued the use of BPA in receipt paper and no new regulations on the use of BPS have been put in place, despite many companies moving away from it.
The following are statements from companies that returned our request for comment:
The safety of those who work and shop with us is of the utmost importance. We have long utilized only BPA-free receipt paper across our stores and are actively working to transition to receipt paper that is free of both BPA and BPS as soon as possible. This transition will begin in a matter of days and we anticipate its completion in the coming weeks.
I can say with confidence that we were not aware of a BPA and BPS version of the receipt paper. We will look and see what our suppliers currently handle and yes, we would make a switch if we are able to get a BPS and BPA free receipt paper.
At Albertsons and Safeway, the health and safety of our associates and customers are top priority, and we diligently work to ensure that our company operations are in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. We are currently pursuing solutions to transition to BPS-free receipt tape prior to the Washington state legislation deadline. -Company Spokesperson
Costco warehouses across the U.S. have already converted to bisphenol-free receipt paper and our gas stations are currently in transition.
The safety and well-being of our employees and customers is a top priority. Our receipts do not contain BPA. While our receipt paper does have some BPS content and other phenols, we will explore alternatives and continue to follow all applicable local, state and federal guidelines. -Steve Doherty, Strategic Communications Specialist
TJX: TJ-Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods
We are pleased to have implemented our plan to phase out all phenol-based coatings (e.g., BPA, BPS, BPF, BPB, BPAF) on paper customer sales receipts in our stores. We initiated the implementation of this program in our U.S. stores in 2021 and subsequently expanded it to our stores in other geographies. We speak to our approach to chemicals management, as well as our phenol-free receipt program, here. -Andrew Mastrangelo, Assistant Vice President, Global Communications
The health and wellness of our customers and employees at Sheetz is a priority and we take the results from the Ecology Center’s Healthy Stuff Lab study very seriously. We have been proactively working with our paper supplier to identify solutions to ensure the safety of all who visit our stores. -Nick Ruffner, PR Manager for Sheetz
I don’t have a written statement for you, but I can confirm that Whole Foods Market stores have used bisphenol-free paper receipts in all our stores since 2020. -Nathan Cimbala, Whole Foods Market, Store Support Public Relations
Wells Fargo declined to comment.
I did want to share some past media coverage about the various non-physical receipt options that Wells Fargo has had in place for more than a decade. -Jennifer Manfre’, Vice President, Sustainability Communications
In accordance with our packaging standards, Starbucks has been using bisphenol-free receipt paper in all of our company-owned stores in the U.S. since 2014.
At Shaw’s, the health and safety of our associates and customers are top priority, and we diligently work to ensure that our company operations are in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. -Sarah Holland, Sr. Director, External Communications
Pittsburgh Regional Transit
Thank you for making us aware of this. South Hills Village parking garage is operated by a third-party contractor, and we will be discussing this with them. - Adam Brandolph, Director of Public Relations
Primanti Bros. Restaurant & Bar
“The safety and satisfaction of our loyal fans is crucial. We strive to create an environment where everyone can feel safe. We are always looking for ways to improve the guest experience and will continue working to do so, including the use of new technologies.”
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