The danger of the shopping docket and other common items that could be putting your health at risk


When a cashier asks if you want a receipt, it’s likely that cancers, infertility, or developmental, reproductive and neurological disorders don’t cross your mind.

But the seemingly harmless shopping docket has been linked to these chronic health issues — because of the endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) used in the thermal printing process.

And it’s far from the only everyday item putting Australians at risk.

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A leading expert says it’s virtually impossible to totally avoid EDCs in Australia, because they are used in so many items, including skin and haircare products and plastic containers.

Andrew Pask is a University of Melbourne epigenetics professor, a member of the Endocrine Society and a former chair of the Society for Reproductive Biology.

He says he never lets his daughter touch shopping receipts because of the potentially harmful chemicals they contain.

What are EDCs?

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, interfere with the body’s hormone-generating endocrine system, by mimicking and blocking the hormones it creates, causing a range of problems in the body, according to the Endocrine Society.

The toxic compounds are found in a huge range of products, such as skincare, haircare, menstrual products, plastic containers, pesticides, the inside of cans, and even microwavable popcorn bags.

And they can be eaten, inhaled, absorbed through the skin, or passed through placenta and breast milk.

“Children and the developing fetus are most sensitive to EDCs,” according to the United Nations Environment Program, which noted the chemicals can lead “to irreversible effects on the body”.

Pask has revealed links between EDCs and the lower fertility rates of modern times.

And he has noted that some of the latest research in the field suggests the effects of EDCs are even being passed down intergenerationally.

“I always try to draw that link between cigarette smoking and cancer,” Pask told 7NEWS.com.au.

“It took decades of research for that to be unequivocally proven because not everyone that smokes is going to get lung cancer.”

Close-up of a woman looking at a shopping receipt. Credit: andresr/Getty Images

The dangers of more prolific EDCs, such as Bisphenol A (BPA), have been proven.

But the complex links between EDCs and their harmful effects were difficult to confirm, Pask said.

This is, in part, because the “relatively minor” immediate impacts on the body are not always felt, but can gradually accumulate within the body.

That, and the fact that once a specific EDC is proven harmful, a societal pivot toward a structurally similar, but less-researched, alternative usually follows.

And in Australia, it is difficult to regulate what has not been researched.

“They’ll just use some alternative that hasn’t yet been proven to have endocrine-disrupting capabilities,” Pask said.

“Often those compounds are very, very similar to the ones that we know have toxic effects, and so it’s very likely they too have toxic effects, they just won’t yet be regulated.”

BPA-free is not EDC-free

Receipts from Woolworths and Coles once contained BPA, but when the world began to learn of the dangers it posed, banning it from products in some countries, the supermarket giants scrapped the chemical.

But what was it replaced with?

The retailers have confirmed that physical receipts were both optional and BPA-free, but did not state what chemicals were currently used in their receipt paper, when contacted by 7NEWS.com.au.

A Woolworths spokesperson did, however, note the company is “continuing to review emerging phenol-free alternatives”.

But it’s not just receipts — it’s a huge range of products.

It’s common, for example, to see drink bottles displaying “BPA-free” symbols, but Pask added: “It’s not clear that any of those BPA-free bottles are endocrine-disruptor-free.”

“I would ultimately like the government to make a reform, to having some sort of symbol that says that (a product) is endocrine-disruptor free, rather than just (free of) one specific chemical.

“Because that’s the critical thing that we’re looking for — products that we know aren’t going to impact our endocrine signalling systems.”

Problems with onus of proof

The Therapeutic Goods Administration says the Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme liaises with regulators on the current status of research on endocrine-active chemicals.

“In Australia, chemicals are regulated under both state and territory, and national laws. At the national level, chemicals are regulated according to their use,” a TGA spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said AICIS, which also worked with Food Standards Australia New Zealand, would recommend risk management actions to mitigate adverse health effects if there “is sufficient evidence of exposure”.

When it comes to funding research about whether a chemical is endocrine disrupting, though, Pask said that where the onus lay was problematic.

It’s left to passionate experts, rather than profiting companies, he said.

“The researchers have to try to get funding to do the research in the first place,” he said.

“And then they have to spend three to five years looking at a particular chemical to prove it has toxic effects.

“Then there is lobbying the government to actually use that information to put in place proper reform around the use and distribution of those chemicals.”

Pask said if a company wanted to use a new chemical that had not been proven, the onus should be on that company to prove it was a safe chemical before it could be used in, for example, food production.

“But that’s really not the case,” he said.

“It seems backward to me that this is the way that things happen.”

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