Dirty Money? Traces of BPA Found on Currency

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Monster's hand passing money to a businessman

To the long list of household items and other common objects contaminated with bisphenol A (BPA) — an endocrine disruptor linked to infertility, genital abnormalities, cancer and more — add something unexpected: money. The cash in your wallet, it turns out, may be dusted with the dangerous chemical, and that can cause real problems if you do the one thing you absolutely must do if you’re going to spend money — which is touch it. (More on Time.com: Why That Rich Guy is Being So Nice to You)

BPA is most commonly used in producing plastic, and manufacturers go through it by the truckload: About 8 billion pounds of BPA are molded, cooked or poured into toys, baby products and other merchandise each year. That should have little effect on money, and indeed, the U.S. mint has no use for BPA when it prints paper currency.

But the folks who manufacture thermal paper — the kind that’s used in inkless cash register receipts — depend on the chemical. And while the BPA is chemically bonded to plastics, it’s simply applied in a powdery film to paper, making it easy to rub off with a touch. Know that neat little pile of bills, receipts and coins the cashier hands you when you make a purchase? Know the way a receipt sometimes makes it into your wallet? That could be leaving a microdose of BPA on your money — one you not only pick up yourself, but also pass on to others when you spend a bill. (More on Time.com: One Person’s Divorce Is Another’s Investment Opportunity)

To determine just how much of a threat cash-borne BPA is, the nonprofit Washington Toxics Coalition (WTC) conducted a study of 22 restaurants and retailers in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The merchants that were surveyed included such giants as a Home Depot in Michigan, a Target store in Minnesota and a Wal-Mart in Ohio. And just to make sure the lawmakers who have the responsibility of keeping an eye on these things knew they had some skin in the game, the House of Representatives’ Rayburn Cafe and the U.S. Senate’s Hart American Grill were also included on the list.

Investigators from the WTC collected cash register receipts from all of the sites and tested them for BPA. While all thermal paper would have at least traces of the chemical, the researchers were looking for those carrying the chemical in the highest concentrations. In total, they found that 11 of the 22 samples crossed the BPA threshold that they called “very large quantities” — about 2.2% of the total weight of the receipts. More troubling, it took only 10 seconds of holding a receipt for 2.5 micrograms of BPA to be picked up by the skin. Rubbing the receipt transferred 15 times as much. Granted, rubbing receipts is not something most folks spend much time doing, however when receipts collect in wallets and pockets, the paper-to-skin contact can become more than glancing. (More on Time.com: Canada Declares BPA Toxic. Is the U.S. Next?)

But if receipts are tainted, how about the money? Is BPA really rubbing off onto greenbacks and making its way into the great river of the money supply? Apparently so. The WTC collected 22 bills from 18 states and Washington, D.C., and found that 21 of them carried detectable levels of BPA.

The new study comes factory-loaded with more than the usual share of caveats. For one, there are billions of bills in circulation, meaning that a random selection of 22 of them is hardly a statistically significant sample group. What’s more, even the WTC acknowledges that the mere fact that there’s BPA on currency doesn’t mean it came from thermal receipts. With so many other products containing the chemical there is no limit of possible sources. But common sense indicates that the receipts are at least the likeliest source.

The solution, short of going completely cashless and refusing all receipts, lies with Congress. The WTC and other groups are lobbying Capitol Hill to update the 34-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TCSA) to crack down on BPA and other commercial chemicals. So how much of a stake do lawmakers have in taking action? The receipt from the House’s cafe was indeed contaminated with BPA, but the Senate’s, alas, was clean. If self-interest counts for anything in Washington — and often it seems to count for everything — that suggests that TCSA reform, like so much else, may wind up as one more law trapped in bicameral gridlock.

Related Links:

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The BPA Debate: Bad Reputation and Still No Answers