October is the one time of the year that people seek out unsettling situations–braving haunted houses, cheerfully shrieking while watching gory horror movies, creating stomach-turning costumes. Yet, now it’s even easier to get scared. Halloween lovers need only read the daily paper for a dose of scaremongering about chemicals. 

Take for instance the media frenzy surrounding a study released last week in the journal PLOS ONE which claimed regular contact with cash register receipt paper is toxic and can lead to a variety of dreadful diseases because it contains a chemical called Bisphenol-A.

Headline writers had a wicked good time making up some ghoulish titles:

BPA could raise risk of diabetes, obesity and cancer–Daily Mail

Why receipts and greasy fingers shouldn't mix–Time

Health fears over BPA in receipts–Yahoo News

Chemical may leach into skin from receipts–WebMD

That's only a few of the headlines. Bank on several more this month.

Yet again, this is a study that needs careful and sober examination–something reporters (some even science reporters!) seem incapable of doing. Instead, it seems reporters are simply lifting the contents of the press release accompanying the study’s release. If the reporter is generous, they’ll stick a one-sentence response from the chemical industry in at the end…you know, right at the point where everyone has stopped reading because they can no longer see through their own “I’m going to DIE!” tears. Nice. 

This increasing tendency to simply rewrite press releases is particularly dangerous when it comes to complex issues—like those involving chemicals. I believe this trend is technically called repeating, not reporting.

It’s not difficult to quickly assess these sorts of studies. Just looking at the authors of the study can sometimes offer a hint as to the study’s legitimacy. And for those who follow chemical issues and specifically BPA, a few names should ring alarm bells. Sure enough, when I looked at this "cash register receipt" study's authors, I found a familiar name—Fredrick vom Saal.

A quick primer on vom Saal. First, he’s a well-known anti-chemical activist who has been called out within the scientific community for unscientific tactics in academic research. His research has been dismissed by the National Toxicology Program. For more on him, read Trevor Butterworth’s thorough examination of vom Saal’s anti-BPA mission as well as this piece by Dr. Richard Sharpe, a professor at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and an expert on reproductive health issues.

Now, if I were a reporter who covered the chemical beat, vom Saal is a name I would most certainly notice. Given vom Saal’s dodgy record, a responsible reporter would immediately question the validity of the research.

Call me crazy, but that seems to be the basics of good journalism.

Equally aggravating is that the reporters covering this issue continuously fail to provide any analysis or push back on the narrative being presented by the researchers. Nor do they mention the many studies that have shown BPA to be safe. Of course, that might be intentional.

And for this latest BPA dustup, reporters should have mentioned another recent and much more rigorous and well-respected study conducted by researchers at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Helsinki Finland. For that study, researchers went a step further—looking at the exposure levels of cashiers instead of just random shoppers. The reason is obvious; cashiers touch a lot more receipts than your average shopper. In fact, cashiers touch every single receipt as they hand it to the shopper.

The study was set up to capture just how many times a cashier touches the receipt paper. From page 2 of the study’s summery of “materials and methods”:

A working day was set to 8 h, including lunch and refreshment breaks. A thermal paper receipt containing 0.9% (w/w) BPA was firmly held by three fingers, the BPA-containing side of the paper being in contact with the pads of the forefinger and the middle finger.

During the experiment, the paper receipt was handled about 140 times, and the total times the paper’s contact with the fingers was approximately 11 min.

The researchers concluded:

The calculated maximum BPA excretion per day after handling thermal paper was less than 0.2 mg/kg of body weight, suggesting a total daily intake over 25 times lower than the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA’s) proposal for a temporary tolerable daily intake (temporary TDI) (5 mg/kg/day).

So, let’s put that in English: According to this Finnish study, a cashier working an 8-hour shift would touch 140 receipts and still have exposure 25 times below safe established levels. That means, a cashier would have to handle 3,500 receipts in a shift, just to come up to the safe intake values that have been calculated by government scientists and regulatory agencies. 

As the study shows, cashiers touch around 140 receipts in an 8-hour shift so it’s simply impossible for them to reach levels that would be toxic.

In other words, you’re fine. I’m fine. 

So, go about your business. Shop and take your receipts without fear. Ignore this silly science and get back to being scared of those traditional Halloween ghosts and goblins.