Widespread BPA contamination in paper products, study suggests.

Jan 09, 2012

Liao,C, and K Kannan. 2011. Widespread occurrence of bisphenol-A in paper and paper products: Implications for human exposure. Environmental Science and Technology http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/es202507f.

Synopsis by Steven Neese

Bisphenol-A contaminates a wide range of paper products, providing another source of human exposure to this chemical.

Bisphenol-A (BPA) seems impossible to avoid. It contaminates food, thermal receipts and drinks served in certain plastic bottles. A new study finds its reach goes even further. Researchers detected trace amounts of the estrogen-like compound in a wide variety of paper products most of us touch every day, including toilet paper, paper towels, newspapers and business cards. 

These paper products represent another source of BPA exposure for people, according to the study's results, which are published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. While levels don't compare to those found in food and are lower than levels measured in thermal paper receipts, the sheer variety of paper products identified with detectable levels of the chemical suggests widespread contamination.

The study is one of the first to report contamination in paper products other than thermal receipts, which are a major source of skin exposure to BPA. It follows another recent study that found BPA on paper money from countries around the world.

The non-thermal paper products analyzed in this study may not provide a considerable source of BPA exposure for most people.

Recycled thermal paper receipts, though, are a likely source of the BPA in the products tested in this study. People recycle about one-third of the thermal receipts used, and many products tested in this study were made from recycled paper.

BPA is used to develop the thermal receipts given to customers at checkout. But, it is loosely bound and is easily transferred to skin and other items that come into contact with the receipts.

BPA production exceeds 8 billion pounds per year.  It is used in plastic products and in the resin linings of food and drink cans. Human exposure is widespread and is mostly through diet but inhaling and skin contact are also recognized as sources of exposure. The chemical is associated with a wide scope of health risks, including reproductive cancers, low sperm counts, behavior problems, obesity and diabetes.

In this study, researchers collected both non-thermal paper products and thermal receipts and analyzed them for BPA. Sampled paper products from New York state and Boston, Mass. were grouped into 14 categories, including flyers, envelopes, food wrappers/cartons and tickets. Most of these non-thermal papers were considered recycled. The researchers analyzed more than 100 thermal receipts from stores, banks, restaurants and other outlets in the United States, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

Ninety-four percent of the thermal receipts – except those from Japan – had measurable levels of BPA. Undetectable levels in Japanese receipts are related to the 2001 BPA phase-out in that country. Measurable amounts were also found in receipts claiming to be “BPA-free.”

The source of contamination in receipts appears to be directly related to the coating of BPA as a color developer and not the printing ink itself.

BPA was found in 81 percent of the non-thermal papers tested, but at levels much lower – up to 1,000 times less – than in the receipts, which would result in somewhat minor exposure levels. All recycled materials tended have some level of BPA.

The source of contamination in non-thermal papers was not determined in the study, but up to 30 percent of thermal papers are recycled, suggesting a potential for cross-contamination during the recycling process.

While levels of BPA exposure to the general population from these paper products are much lower in comparison to what occurs through food, the results add a variety of paper products to the long list of products that result in human contact with BPA.

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