How can I chill out about the high amount of BPA in receipts?
January 1, 2011 11:14 AM   Subscribe

Phthalates, VOCs, BPA in plastic and cans, the list goes on. I changed my habits in an attempt to avoid all those things. Now it's high amounts of BPA that rub off of sales receipts. Any advice that could help me chill out? I'm exhausted.

I try to live a green lifestyle, for both health and political reasons. I avoid plastic and disposable/junk goods in general and shoot for quality over quantity. I don't eat fast food. I don't use artificially perfumed/50-ingredient/nanoparticled personal care products. I filter my water. I get food from a CSA. I don't feel that I am off the deep end with this stuff, but a) do not trust US government regulatory agencies to not be at least halfway in bed with Monsanto, the ACC, the APC et al b) do not trust the industrialized food system, the personal care products industry, or the consumer product industry to prioritize health above profits.

Most of my friends seem to think my interest in these matters is pretty looney tunes. Obviously I disagree – up until now, it's been fairly easy to keep abreast of news reports in these departments and make different choices based on my ensuing research. However, this BPA in receipts deal (see here and here for starters) has me throwing up my hands. Unbound BPA that simply rubs off a receipt at levels that seem so much higher than anything I was ever getting from my old Nalgene bottle?! This one just seems so much more... pervasive and unavoidable. I mean, what do you really do? Wear gloves to complete a transaction at the post office? Refuse receipts in general (though many stores require you to show them at the door when you leave)? Ask your family members to not bring freaking receipts into the house or to wash their hands after they crumple a receipt into the trashcan (as if that would fly)? Then it seems like you're really entering looney tunes territory.

I guess what I'm asking for is either some advice on avoiding receipts or perspective on why it's not so bad in the first place. (And yes, I am very aware that we are all going to die, but in the meantime I would prefer to avoid even a small increase in cancer likelihood). I did read this question and found it helpful, although most of the advice touches on things I already do. Thanks!
posted by allisonrae to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Just don't get receipts or ask them to put them in the bag. But really, it's a tiny, tiny risk, IMO.

If you're going to worry about every little thing you come in contact with that will give you cancer (including many natural foods), you'll drive yourself crazy.
posted by empath at 11:34 AM on January 1, 2011

This is probably obvious, but one way to limit the amount of receipts you come in contact with is to buy fewer things.
posted by box at 11:41 AM on January 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think any risk for the receipts is for the people who work the tills. The amount of exposure you are going to get from briefly handling the receipts in your day to day life is NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT. Also, BPA leaves your system pretty quick, so if you did for some reason rub a roll of receipts all over your exposed skin (which I'm not sure would result in any real serious amount getting into your bloodstream) the BPA would be gone quickly (like days). I'm more worried about the fact that all cans (ie canned food) are apparently lined in BPA which is more of a concern because the food is absorbing the BPA while on the shelf. So don't eat canned food.

I think if you are already making big efforts to avoid all the crap that a tiny bit of BPA on a receipt that you briefly touch is not enough to do any damage. The concern is more about the constant and unending accumulation of BPA in people who do not avoid all other exposure - like your friends!
posted by smartypantz at 11:54 AM on January 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

you'll drive yourself crazy.

I would recommend traveling to a country much poorer than your own to get a little perspective on how clean you have it. Worrying about touching receipts is a tad over the crazy line. You're going to end up living in a (BPA-free) plastic bubble if you don't get a grip.
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:55 AM on January 1, 2011 [8 favorites]

Best answer: As a general principle to keep in mind, remember that the effect of your particular lifestyle on you and the world, is an effect that occurs and builds up over time. The aim isn't to get a perfect score, it's to develop a conscious lifestyle that's sustainable for you--meaning that it's not mentally or emotionally exhausting.

In other words, if you're living your life the way you think you should 98% of the time, don't sweat the 2%. When you find yourself in this state ("Holy shit, now I have to avoid touching receipts?"), remind yourself that it's a very small thing in the long run that's not going to kill you right now, and give yourself permission to just not worry about it right now. Feel confident that you'll figure out how to integrate this new bit of data and a good response to it over time, and relax about it.

You're trying to be better overall, not perfect in every single moment.
posted by fatbird at 11:56 AM on January 1, 2011 [19 favorites]

I think any risk for the receipts is for the people who work the tills.

Yes, precisely. This blog post discusses the issue and mentions a Swiss study that found that the risk for customers (as opposed to cashiers) was very low.
posted by asterix at 11:57 AM on January 1, 2011

From your link:
"Even a well-informed consumer can't avoid exposure when contamination is so pervasive and constant," the scientists wrote.

I think the best you can do is make up your mind to not keep receipts for longer than you have to, and not hold money in your hand for very long either. And don't ask your friends to go along with it if you don't want to alienate them (which is kind of a shame, as this just seems like common sense to me).

If you don't need the receipts for anything (record keeping, work reimbursements, etc.) then it's usually pretty easy to get rid of them as soon as possible. I have no use for them and usually find a garbage can for them on the way out of the store.

The only stores that I know of that make you show the receipt is bulk stores like Costco and Sam's Club and sometimes KMart.
posted by amethysts at 11:57 AM on January 1, 2011

Are you worried for yourself, or do you have kids (present or future) to worry about? Most of the BPA research I've seen shows an effect on children, but not so much on adults. That's not to say that there won't be more studies in the future that show something different, but right now, I agree with empath that it is a small risk to you.

What I tell myself is that lots of people in my parents' generation (born in the 30s, lived through the "better living through chemistry" era) are living long, healthy lives even though they were most likely exposed to much higher levels of nastier stuff than I am.
posted by cabingirl at 11:59 AM on January 1, 2011

Best answer: Download and read actual original source studies done on each of the things you're concerned about. Ignore all of the popular media account of these health risks, only use them to find your way to the primary sources. Read up on some basic statistics.

Now find and read some original source studies on things that are well established to be significantly bad for you e.g. asbestos, mercury, first hand smoking, etc. Compare the different probabilities of health risks and start to calibrate a scale of concern that is well informed and makes sense for your personal risk acceptance levels.
posted by stp123 at 12:00 PM on January 1, 2011 [7 favorites]

According to the report by the Washington Toxics Coalition, it seems like there is BPA on receipts, but how the amount that gets absorbed by the skin actually affects adults is unclear. Washing your hands a couple of times per day should reduce absorption a great deal, and you do that anyway.

You're going to get a certain amount of toxins in your body. If you live in a large city, the number of pervasive toxins will increase. You'll have to balance the potential effect of doing things that may or may not affect your health in the future with the real effect on your life of trying to avoid pervasive toxins. For me, trying to avoid touching money and paper receipts sounds a little crazy. Just wash your hands when you get home.
posted by demiurge at 12:03 PM on January 1, 2011

Best answer: I'm totally with you on (a) and (b). I think those beliefs are very justifiable. So, when I read empath's comment with that mindset, I think "but if they put it in the bag, now it's all over the shirt you bought, and then it's in your house and how do you throw it away without tracking it all over the door handles..."

What helped me stop thinking like this was that someone pointed me to research on stress. It turns out that low-level constant stress is very bad for you. Their point was that, yes, pesticides or flame retardants or whatever may damage your health -- but the stress that you were inflicting on yourself by worrying about them definitely would. When I worried about toxins, I was more often angry, frustrated, alienated, and depressed -- and these psychological states do impact your physical health. The same person pointed out that ever since I was a kid, I would occasionally worry about being poisoned. So for me, there is also a non-rational component that it helped to acknowledge.

Following that, I stopped reading about things I couldn't control (I actually quit reading national news and green blogs entirely for about two years) and instead focused on the big issues -- consuming less, buying things used, buying things from local craftspeople (it helps that I live in a city with a big DIY culture), getting outside more, driving less and biking more, having a fulfilling daily life and strong relationships. I'm still only 10% down this path, but I do think it's a better route to a healthy life. Focusing on DuPont / Monsanto / Proctor & Gamble / etc. etc. etc., and what they do and don't do, only highlights what you can't control. Focusing on the life you want to build is more satisfying, and better for your health. So, I've channeled my energy away from thinking about topics like BPA by remembering that the time I spend on my computer reading about toxins was time that I was not doing things like making my lunches for the week, gardening (and growing some of my veggies), or just out playing with friends.

tl;dr If you want to stop worrying about toxins, focus on your ultimate goal -- good health -- and consider the ways that worrying about toxins damages your health or trades off with other actions that would improve your health more.
posted by salvia at 12:13 PM on January 1, 2011 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: @CunningLinguist Harsh (I do have a grip, thank you), but I absolutely understand and agree with your point about other countries. It's a very good reminder. These are ridiculously first-world issues to be concerned about, I know.

@fatbird That was very helpful. Thank you!

As far as cashiers go, I do think about this angle. I'd never mention it to a cashier as part of general checkout chit-chat (the Debbie Downer factor, plus if they are concerned what are they going to do anyway – it's their job!), but it does seem concerning.

@cabingirl All of the above, but primarily the kids. The reminder about our parents'/grandparents' generation is a good one – I try to keep that in mind too.

Thanks, everyone, for your comments so far – they are all helpful!
posted by allisonrae at 12:20 PM on January 1, 2011

Also, I am not sure BPA has major problems for adults. I thought BPA was mainly a risk for children in the minute amounts we encounter normally, including lexan nalgenes. I think Cabingirl has the best perspective on this. By reducing exposure, you reduce risk, so for major things like switching nalgenes to metal you might be lowering exposure to BPA enough to reduce risk significantly over your lifetime.

However, on the other side, at what point are you reducing exposure by minute amounts, and thus not really reducing risk? I'd wait until general health consensus (IE physicians) agree lifestyle change is met before reacting or letting the "report" bother you.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 12:25 PM on January 1, 2011

(a) and (b). I think those beliefs are very justifiable.

Actually, that's not exactly a true representation of how I see things, but it was definitely how I felt when I was in college. I really don't know people's motivations, and I haven't been watching the issues closely enough to have an opinion on it. There are definitely various factors that they're balancing, e.g., the risk of the flame retardant vs. the risk of people dying from mattresses that catch fire.

But it occurs to me that, especially when you can't control your own exposures, another route for your concerns might be to work for or donate to groups that work on this issue, like the Environmental Working Group or the Pesticide Action Network.
posted by salvia at 12:36 PM on January 1, 2011

Download and read actual original source studies done on each of the things you're concerned about. Ignore all of the popular media account of these health risks, only use them to find your way to the primary sources. Read up on some basic statistics.

I agree with this. It can take years or decades for multiple scientific studies to point at basic truths. But the popular media generally skims what's out there, and forms a compelling narrative out of one or two studies, often not waiting for corroborating studies to confirm findings.
posted by ZeusHumms at 2:39 PM on January 1, 2011

I don't think you're crazy.
posted by brandsilence at 7:39 PM on January 1, 2011

First, as one of those government scientists, I'd like to say that I Wish we were in bed with the big money corporations, as then maybe our programs would be better funded. On the other hand, I agree that corporations hold too much power over funding, research, and regulation. However, there is a lot of good science out there, too.

Ok, that said, I have to add that I agree with the comment about reducing stress as being a more important risk factor. And I want to point out that while you Could go live naked in a tree and spearfish for all of your sustenance, it's not feasible for most USians. So the only thing that's left is the spectrum of choices that you make to live well, because there is risk in Everything - air, water, food, activity, rest. You could educate yourself with studies, but honestly, if you spend a lot of time reading toxicology papers you might never eat, drink, or breath again.

You're largely exposed through dermal, inhalation, and ingestion routes. Inhalation is often the most direct and dangerous - if you're not smoking, you've already reduced your risk Hugely. Next is ingestion, and if you're drinking water in the US it is generally Great (read your CCR, keep not drinking it out of bad plastics, change the filter you say you're using regularly to prevent bacterial growth). The next best thing you can probably do for yourself is eating lots of fruits and veggies, and local foods and CSAs are great. Dermal is rarely a very risky route for daily living (unless you regularly use hazardous chemicals), though I personally try to avoid personal care products with nanoparticles/other unrecognizable ingredients as a precautionary measure.

To illustrate my point about risk being everywhere, I had a colleague that did a review of the literature on eggs, because so many more folks are keeping backyard chickens these days. And it turns out the literature in Europe showed more bioaccumulating toxins (PCBs, dioxins) in free range chicken eggs than in "factory farm" eggs. Often contamination above the levels considered safe by European authorities, and there was no point source of the contamination at the free range farms. But, as with eating fish, the conclusion isn't to stop eating eggs or fish -- there are great reasons why these are excellent protein sources, and free range farming provides many benefits to the environment, animals, and consumers. But it highlighted again that the things we think of as obviously less risky sometimes aren't, and all we can do is try to live lightly and as safely as we can within the constraints of knowledge and environment. Our life expectancy keeps increasing for good reason.

All of this is a very long way of saying that you sound like you are making great choices and living well. Keep doing what you're doing and stay informed, but also take all panic-inducing reports with a Big grain of salt. The air you're breathing and food/water that you're ingesting are a Lot cleaner than when you were a kid. Savor them to reduce that stress.
posted by ldthomps at 9:56 PM on January 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

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