Working in the restaurant industry has its share of safety hazards, but there's an often-overlooked aspect that poses a particular risk to restaurant servers: thermal receipts. The receipts—which are incredibly common in the food industry and are used in many facets of operation—are typically coated in bisphenol A (BPA), a controversial chemical linked to a variety of possible health woes, including heart failure, reproductive issues, prostate cancer, and obesity.

While the focus of exposure to BPA has been mostly on ingestion (say, through BPA-lined cans or bottles), it's also possible to absorb BPA through the skin. In fact, research last year by the University of Missouri found that receipts in particular account for high BPA levels in humans (as much as 250 to 1,000 times greater than the amount in a can of food), and that absorption can be "drastically" increased when a subject first uses a skin-care product, such as hand cream, hand sanitizer, soap, or sunscreen, and then touches a receipt.

The sheer amount of receipt paper waitrons handle is alarming. Table service generates several copies of receipt paper, which is handled multiple times by service staff. I was trained to print the itemized bill for customers whether they request it or not (it's a transparency thing, I think), and most people pay with credit cards, which adds another two pieces of thermal paper to the equation. Servers handle the paper at the printer first, again when they pick up the check after diners leave, and once more at the end of the night when they close out their tickets and print their daily sales reports. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that BPA levels in workers handling receipts with no gloves were five times higher after eight hours than in workers using gloves.

Not only are restaurant staff handling toxic receipts all day long, but there's also the worrisome issue of recycling. While many of us may think we're doing god's work by putting these receipts in the recycling bin, experts say that may not be a good idea. In a report titled "Should We Recycle Thermal Receipts That Contain BPA?" the Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center (PPRC) says, "Given the concerns surrounding the potential endocrine-disrupting activity of BPA, the PPRC advises that thermal receipt papers be disposed of in the trash rather than recycled. Recycling poses a risk for free release of BPA-containing coating materials in recycling facilities as well as the possibility to contaminate new paper production. Furthermore, these recycled paper products are often used for primary (directly in contact with food) or secondary (packaging around an separate internal package) food packaging, and there is at least some possibility that contaminants could migrate to food."

But both the City of Seattle and King County don't appear to be aware of the dangers of recycling BPA receipts. The Seattle Public Utilities website says "thermal paper, often used for receipts and carbonless copies, goes in your recycling cart." King County does not have any specific instructions for recycling receipts. Rachel Garrett, a spokesperson for Seattle Public Utilities, said, "SPU cannot offer an opinion on whether landfilling is better than recycling of this material." She added that her organization isn't aware of the ultimate fate of paper once it's shipped out for processing. Timothy Croll, SPU's solid waste director, said, "Our present policy is to require recycling of all paper, including receipt paper."

Luckily, this problem can be fixed. Paperless receipt systems, while more expensive overall for restaurants than paper systems, also cut costs on paper.

There are also alternatives to BPA receipts. Appvion offers thermal paper that's completely free of phenols. Instead, their "alpha-free" paper uses vitamin C, which also makes it recyclable. Natural foods grocery chain PCC made the switch, and their director of sustainability, Diana Chapman, told me the price was "comparable to the paper we used before." Dave Pauly, a product manager for Appvion, said their phenol-free paper is about 10 to 15 percent more expensive than conventional thermal paper.

Pauly added that the cost has been decreasing as the economies of scale are improving. "For many large retailers, this difference in price can be a large number when they look at it across all of their receipts in stores nationwide," he said. "For smaller retailers, the cost of receipt paper is a less significant cost of doing business. Any cost difference would be a fraction of a fraction of a penny per receipt printed."

Unfortunately, most "BPA-free" paper isn't any less toxic than the BPA kind. It's often made with bisphenol S (BPS), which is similar in structure to BPA. In 2014, the EPA solicited safer replacements for BPA, including BPS. But the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) warns, "The most common substitute for BPA at this time is bisphenol S (BPS), found in half the papers the MPCA tested recently. BPS has a similar structure to BPA and has also been found to have effects on the endocrine and reproductive systems of mammals at low doses."

While BPA may not be the most dire threat we face—there's still global warming, garbage islands in the Pacific Ocean, and the potential for a Donald Trump presidency—it is a relatively easy one to deal with. What does it take? A few decision makers making phone calls, opening their purse strings a tiny bit, and giving the Lorax a big ol' hug. Before long, we'll all be laughing over our farm-to-table omelets about how we used to use toxic thermal paper for our credit-card receipts. The future is now! recommended