25 Investigates: Harmful ‘toxic’ chemical found in paper receipts from many Mass. businesses

BOSTON — A toxic chemical that researchers say can harm child development and contribute to breast cancer and female reproductive issues was detected in a large sample of paper receipts, a 25 Investigates and Cox Media Group investigation revealed.

25 Investigates and seven other Cox Media Group stations collected more than 240 receipts across eight states. An independent lab test showed 80 percent—195 of 245 receipts—contained Bisphenol S, an endocrine disruptor that can harm the reproductive system.

“The reason why we worry about a chemical like BPS is that when it gets into our bodies, it acts like estrogen and distrupts other hormones in our bodies,” said UMass Amherst Professor of Environmental Health Sciences Dr. Laura Vandenberg. “When we look at people who have higher levels of exposure, they’re more likely to have metabolic disease and neurological conditions. They’re more likely to develop certain cancers [or have] infertility problems.”

Boston 25 News collected 30 paper receipts from Massachusetts businesses and sent them off for testing at the Ecology Center, a Michigan-based nonprofit environmental organization.

Receipts from 22 local businesses tested positive for BPS:

  • Barnes & Noble, Dedham
  • Burger King, Norwood
  • Chick-fil-A, Dedham
  • Dick’s Sporting Goods, Dedham
  • Dunkin, Dedham
  • Gulf, Walpole
  • Home Depot, Norwood
  • Kohl’s, Walpole
  • Lowe’s, Dedham
  • Market Basket, West Bridgewater
  • McDonald’s, Norwood
  • Old Navy, Walpole
  • PetSmart, Walpole
  • Savers, Norwood
  • Shaw’s, Medfield
  • Shell, Westwood
  • Stop & Shop, Dedham
  • Sweetgreen, Dedham
  • Sunoco, Norwood
  • Total Wine & More, Dedham
  • USPS, Medfield
  • Walmart, Walpole

CMG stations requested comment from all companies involved in the test. The United State Postal Service was one of the first organizations to respond to Boston 25 News.

“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.” a USPS spokesperson said.

A Shaw’s spokesperson said the health and safety of its employees and customers is a top priority.

“We diligently work to ensure that our company operations are in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations,” the Shaw’s spokesperson said.

Target’s website says the company “fully converted to phenol-free receipt paper” in 2020. CMG stations tested six Target receipts from four states and one from Jacksonville, Florida tested positive for BPS. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Lab results showed receipts from six national chains--CVS, HomeGoods, Marshalls, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods--did not contain BPS or BPA, but rather alternative color developers like Pergaset 201 or NKK-1304. TJX, the parent company of TJ-Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods, said it phased out phenol in its paper receipts two years ago.

“We are pleased to have implemented our plan to phase out all phenol-based coatings…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,” a TJX spokesperson said.

What is Bisphenol S?

BPS is the chemical in a receipt that changes color when a laser comes into contact with the thermal paper. The organic compound has been shown to be more toxic to the reproductive system than BPA, and “hormonally promote certain breast cancers at the same rate as BPA,” according to research shared by the National Library of Medicine.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a section on its website dedicated to concerns about Bisphenol A, an organic compound very similar to BPS. However, there’s been no regulatory action taken with regards to BPS.

A 2022 study by the European Chemicals Agency found BPS and 33 other bisphenols need to be regulated because of their “reproductive toxicity and endocrine effects.” The fertility-toxicity testing company Million Marker lists BPA and BPS as chemicals to avoid, and recommends not touching or using paper receipts if someone is pregnant or looking to become pregnant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says human health effects from BPA at low environmental exposures are unknown.

“BPA has been shown to affect the reproductive systems of laboratory animals. More research is needed to understand the human health effects of exposure to BPA,” the CDC says on its website.

Paper receipt trade group says BPS is “safer alternative”

The Paper Receipts Converting Association released a statement to Cox Media Group stations, describing BPS as a “safer alternative” to BPA, adding that no new BPS regulations have taken effect in recent years concerning BPS use in thermal paper.

“Today, most the (sic) thermal paper in the United States contains BPS. But what you re are not being told, is BPS is used as a safer alternative in lengthy list of items,” a PRCA statement said. “There is a simple reason advocates disingenuously refer to ‘potential’ harm; that is, they have no actual ‘proof’ of harm to human health.”

Vandenberg disagreed and said people, especially children, exposed to BPS over time could see adverse effects.

“Does it mean that those chemicals cause [metabolic, neurological and fertility] conditions? We can’t say that for certain in any one person, but what we can say is across populations, these are contributing to lots of hormone-mediated diseases,” Vandenberg said. “Should it be used in contact with food? Should it be used in something I come into contact with every time I go to the grocery store or the ATM or get a plane ticket? No, I don’t think it should be in those products.”

Study finds people handle receipts for more than 11 minutes

Vandenberg co-authored a 2017 UMass Amherst study that found people dining in the university cafeteria handled their paper receipts for more than 11 minutes, far longer than regulatory agencies accounted for. Vandenberg’s report said “exposure estimates” from agencies like the European Food Safety Authority were based on “typical” exposures for adults handling receipts for less than a minute at a time.

“What we found is that on average people were spending more than ten minutes in contact with thermal receipt paper,” Vandenberg said. “They weren’t just holding it between their fingers. It was on their palm, it was on all of their fingers.”

The researchers also observed a few students putting receipts in their mouths, including one who Vandenberg said rolled up the paper and used it as a straw.

“Why would you think what’s on this receipt is hazardous if we’re handing it to you in a place where you eat or in a grocery store?” Vandenberg said. “This isn’t the fault of [consumers] who aren’t making this connection.”

Vandenberg said she’d like to see more consumers turn down a cashier’s offer of a paper receipt.

“I think the best thing we could do is say no thanks to the receipt when we can,” she said.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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