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Are Your Dollar Bills Safe?

Recent research has determined that shiny-paper store receipts are packing a lot of BPA, a widely used chemical linked to a whole host of illnesses. Now comes word that the BPA on those thermal paper receipts could be rubbing off on your dollar bills, creating a potential health issue inside your wallet.

BPA -- Bisphenol A for the science geeks out there -- has been linked to health issues such as cancer, heart disease, and sexual dysfunction, and is of particular concern for its potential impact on developing fetuses and young children. Earlier this year, citing new studies, the Food and Drug Administration announced it was backtracking a bit from its position that BPA posed no safety risk, and is now conducting a new round of studies to re-examine the risk factor.

What's Really in Your Wallet?
The research released yesterday by the Washington Toxics Coalition and the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families organization took a look at 22 dollar bills pulled out of the wallets from people across 18 states. BPA was present on 95 percent of the dollar bills, and the researchers said half of the receipts contained what they consider to be high levels of BPA. The researchers theorized that because the BPA used in thermal paper is essentially an "unbound" powder, it can rub off easily on skin and other porous surfaces. And the "unbound" BPA could potentially be more of a concern than the BPA that is contained in hard plastics, such as some baby bottles.
Casually handling receipts can in fact transfer BPA to your skin, but of particular concern in this study was the potential for greater transfer when dollar bills are constantly hanging out next to receipts in your wallet. A spokesman for the Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group told WebMD that while BPA is indeed present in many thermal papers manufactured, the low levels do not present a health concern.

I admit to being a card-carrying member of the better-safe-than-sorry crowd. So even though the new study was decidedly small (testing 22 dollar bills), I am taking my cues from an FDA deputy commissioner who, when announcing the FDA's new round of BPA testing in January said, "We have some concern, which leads us to recommend reasonable steps the public can take to reduce exposure to BPA."

Here are some common-sense steps to reduce your potential exposure to BPA at the cash register and in your wallet:

1. Decline the receipt. For big-ticket purchases you might want to return or need for insurance purposes -- such as expensive electronics items -- it obviously makes sense to get a receipt. But how often do you mindlessly accept the receipt for a small purchase and plunk it in your wallet or purse?

2. Ask about the store's thermal paper source. There are indeed plenty of thermal paper manufacturers who are not using BPA in their paper. In the new study, retailers whose receipts were BPA free included Trader Joe's, Costco and Target. That doesn't mean it is a company wide-policy, however, so it's best to check with your most frequented stores to find out what they use. UPDATE: Appleton, the largest thermal paper producer in the U.S. -- its paper has been BPA-free since 2006 --says it recently began to embed red fibers in its paper so consumers would be able to identify BPA-free thermal paper. It expects all its paper will have the red fibers in the first quarter of 2011. So if you see the red flecks, hold it as tight as you'd like.

3. No manhandling. Researchers found that merely holding a receipt for 10 seconds produced traces of BPA on the skin. When the researchers actively rubbed the paper, the level of BPA on the skin was 15 times higher than when the receipt was merely held. Granted, active receipt rubbing probably isn't something you do very often, but women who have the habit of blotting lipstick on any available paper when they are on the run -- you know who you are -- should probably make a conscious effort to not use the cash register receipt.

4. Keep your receipts out of the wallet. Or at least give them a segregated storage spot away from the dollar bills and make it a habit to frequently transfer the receipts to a desk drawer or envelope.

5. Wash your hands. Indeed, this is a favorite recommendation from scientists who study BPA. Makes sense, but not exactly the most convenient step when you are out and about. That said, if your job -- or your kid's afterschool job for that matter -- includes lots of time manning a cash register, you might want to consider frequent bathroom jaunts to wash your hands. Or perhaps some gloves if you're handling money and receipts all day. In one study, people working in retail had BPA concentrations in their body that were 30 percent higher than average.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user somegeekintn

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