Seeing Red: Next Installment in BPA-Paper Saga

Science & the Public Blog: Red flecks will mark North American thermal-receipt paper that is BPA-free.

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By Janet Raloff, Science News

A year ago, I began reporting that a Massachusetts chemist had for years been turning up bisphenol A—a hormone-mimicking chemical—lacing the heat-sensitive coatings on local cash-register receipts. This BPA was used as an integral part of the paper's color-change chemistry. As additional research teams confirmed his data, consumers (including me) began to ask: How can we identify which thermal papers include BPA? But there had been no means to distinguish between them. Until now.

Wisconsin-based Appleton Paper produces more than half of the thermal receipt paper sold in North America. In the first week in November, it began incorporating tiny biodegradable red rayon fibers in its stock. Resembling tiny eyelashes, they're visible only on the paper's back, uncoated side.

Explains Kent Willetts, the firm's vice president of strategic development, since Appleton is the only company to make—or sell—BPA-free thermal-receipt paper in North America, these fibers offer consumers a way to identify at a glance which papers won't shed BPA onto our hands and clothes.

His company eliminated BPA from its thermal-receipts paper four years ago when a blizzard of toxicology studies began pointing to potential health threats posed by the chemical.

The marking system took three months to develop and a substantial investment, he notes. "But it's the right thing to do."

Because thermal coatings that rely on BPA are such a rich and ubiquitous source of the chemical, several research teams have concluded cash-register and ATM receipts likely constitute the leading source of exposure for most Americans. And a new French government study has just confirmed what most of us didn't want to hear: that BPA's tiny molecules easily pass through skin, where they can enter the bloodstream.

The French data appear to also explain why a new survey of pregnant U.S. women found cashiers had the highest amounts of BPA in their bodies (as evidenced by the concentrations excreted in their urine).

Although production of the marked paper is underway, it's going to take a while to filter into stores, Willetts says. "But you should start seeing it before the end of the year," he says. Even then, the roll-out will be somewhat gradual. First to carry those red threads, he says, will be "about three-quarters of our thermal receipt paper by volume—our ‘bread-and-butter' kind, used in everyday gas-pump and grocery-store types of receipts." By the end of March, the rest should carry it as well, including higher grade papers used for ATM machines.

What won't: the really high-grade thermal papers used for packing and shippers' labels. They have to be able to withstand substantial abuse—including scuffing, blistering temperatures during transit and perhaps even sitting out in the rain. So even the paper's of Appleton's competitors have always used a different, more expensive color-change chemistry for this paper that doesn't rely on BPA, Willetts notes.

For those lower grade applications, Appleton now uses a chemical cousin of BPA—bisphenol sulfonate. EPA's public-private Design for the Environment partnership is assessing whether there's an even safer substitute. "We welcome them in evaluating alternatives," Willetts says, and will switch to one of them if data show "it's better."

To date, research has not indicted receipt paper—or the quantities of BPA that rub off from it—for triggering adverse health effects. However, a flurry of studies has been pointing to warning signs. For people who subscribe to the precautionary principle and would therefore gain peace of mind from avoiding unnecessary exposure, Americans will soon have a means of identifying a substantial source.

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