Does Anyone in the Media Understand Concentration and Doses

This is an interesting and frustrating article describing the efforts by environmental groups to ban thermal paper with BPA in it.  The argument is that thermal paper receipts touch money, contaminating the paper money supply such that people will have BPA pass into their bloodstream by dermal absorption from money.

Of course, this is only scary if you have absolutely no common sense about doses.  The exposures are simply absurdly small, from a chemical that it is not even clear has long-term harms (the article talks about nano-grams of exposure -- when you start talking nano-grams, you might as well just count individual molecules).  And, as an added bonus, its ban in thermal paper simply pushes manufacturers to use chemicals that are not necesarily safer, just less studied and without the "BPA" name that the media has tarnished so badly.  Incredibly, at least one state, Connecticut, actually followed through on this useless ban scheme.

You don't have to convince me money is dirty -- I am sure any bill in my pocket is crawling with viruses and bacteria and other weird stuff.  Carrying around money is like toting around pieces of clothing someone else has worn for 6 months without washing.  So I am sure the bills in my pocket are icky, but to get worked up about BPA rubbed off from my last Home Depot receipt is just insane.


  1. Gryphon315:

    If they understood the idea of concentration and doses most of the scares made by the green religious movement would be taken as comedy, not as news. The concentrations of most of the chemicals they are frothing at the mouth over are so small as to be laughable.
    Mind you, some chemicals are unsafe in very small doses, but those are not the ones in common use, at least as far as I have seen (I could always be proven wrong).

  2. jay:

    though I'd love to see thermal receipts disappear. Have you ever had to go back to a receipt that 8 or 10 months old?

    What's wrong with ink?

  3. Don:

    Jay: One word, "Maintenance" Ink and ink-jet printers have a MUCH higher maintenance cost, and when you're talking the kind of volume of a retail store (especially something like Walmart), you're talking maybe $10M/yr additional costs. That's a big ticket for such a low-margin/high volume business (most grocery stores have an average markup of 1-2%).

  4. Doug G.:

    Probably the same people who spend money on homeopathy!

  5. Jim Collins:

    You could say the same for their understanding of radiation exposure.

  6. delurking:

    yes, this whole thing is stupid, but at least do a sanity check on the numbers you throw out. A nanogram of BPA is about 10^12 molecules.

  7. Henry Bowman:

    The answer to the question you pose is a simple "no".

  8. marco73:

    I'd be much more concerned with shaking hands with someone, than any chemical that would be on paper money or a store receipt. I'd also be more concerned with breathing the same air with hundreds of the unwasted masses in a Walmart.
    So I guess enviro greenies won't be happy until we are all shrink wrapped and breathing from personal air supplies when we leave the hermetically sealed house.
    Yeah, that's really getting back to nature.

  9. Doug:

    @marco73: how much BPA is there in shrink wrap?

  10. steve:

    The enviro greenies have turned into proffessionals over the years. The continuation of their paychecks from donations and government grants require ongoing public fear over the issues they raise. The actual enviornmental harm involved with any particular issue is secondary to how well that issue plays with the public.

  11. RandomReal[]:

    This is a symptom of two things: the Risk Free Society and bureaucracy creep. In the Risk Free Society, everyone lives to 100, never gets sick, always has an income, never has an accident, never loses money on an investment....Need I go on? With bureaucracy creep in government, once a committee, department or whatever entity is formed, the goal of the department is first to accomplish the goals first set out by the legislature. If the goals are achieved, what more is there to do? Well they have to come up with more shit to do. With the EPA, it appears to me that they feel it is their mission to mandate removal of every last fmol of potentially toxic substances from our environment, especially if they are man-made. Similarly, these green groups have to come up with stuff to justify their existence. However, in a substantially clean environment, they have to come up with something, anything, and they do come up with stuff mentioned in the post. I am waiting for the day when some MSM talking head links CO2 to lung cancer.

    That being said, I came across this web site:

    If lawmakers ever demand this, I will conclude that there really is no hope and Seasteading might seem an attractive option.

  12. Dan:

    Reminds me of the whole ridiculous anti-GMO crops issue. Same people, I'm sure.

  13. John Cheek:

    Good points Steve and RR.These people could care less about the dose.I once heard Dixie Lee Ray (former governor of Washington,now deceased)speak about this issue.She said the wackos were concerned about the equivalent of one drop of gin in 3 train tank car loads of water.Infinitesmal!!!JaC

  14. Steve W from Ford:

    It is not just that they don't understand ( they don't) but they don't want to understand.
    Screaming headlines about (supposedly) risky stuff, sells.

  15. Barak A. Pearlmutter:

    I have a two-year-old daughter, she loves to play with receipts, including trying to put them in her mouth. I cannot imagine this is unusual. What is the dosage there? I do not know. However I am curious. And if you're going to claim that the people trying to ban BPA in receipts did not do proper calculations and are worried about negligibly tiny levels of exposure, then it seems like there is a burden on *you* to do some actual back-of-the-envelope calculations. Or at least give the raw numbers on which such calculations might be based.

  16. Barak A. Pearlmutter:

    Here are some actual numbers, from an actual scientific paper.

    Raw concentration. "Of 13 thermal printing papers analyzed, 11
    contained 8-17 g/kg bisphenol A". So eating BPA-containing thermal paper: VERY BAD since it is roughly 1% BPA by weight. Absorption by fingers. "When taking hold of a receipt consisting of thermal printing paper for 5s, roughly 1 μg BPA (0.2–6 μg) was transferred to the forefinger and the middle finger if the skin was rather dry and about ten times more if these fingers were wet or very greasy". Penetration of the skin seemed to vary between not at all to nearly complete depending on conditions. "... exposure of a person repeatedly touching thermal printer paper for 10 h/day, such as at a cash register, could reach 71 μg/day, which is 42 times less than the present tolerable daily intake". This is getting to be a pretty tight safety margin, as these things go. The study doesn't account for inhaled or ingested dust. Or licking a finger that has bits of thermal paper stuck to it. Or thermal paper getting onto sandwich wrapping, or being used as a napkin, or being used to rest food on to keep it off a countertop while eating at work. (Or toddlers eating it.)

    People are used to paper being pretty safe stuff, after all, and do tend to treat it that way.

    Bottom line. In general I'm pretty skeptical of these sorts of "ban it dangris kemikal!!!" hysteria. But in this case, after a few min of research, the doses and potential exposure seems disquietingly non-negligible.

  17. me:

    Wide-spread problem; the US is spending more than 60 billion a year to avert small doses of death-by-terrorism. As opposed, to, say, invest into roadside safety, finally make bathtubs safe for everyone or - gasp - get out of the way and allow people to make up their own minds on what to spend their money on.

  18. dad29:

    Here in metal-bending-land, the terms are "speeds and feeds". And yes, those concepts are far too difficult for j-school people to grasp.

  19. DMac:

    God knows what you come into contact with when you hop into a NYC cab, but I don't see too many santizer dispensers offered for the customers. We live in a modern, crowded, complex world, with significant human interaction. There is bound to be some risk involved.

  20. Suz:

    Oh please. I've been a cashier and a bank teller for many years; money is filthy. A chemical that rubbed off of receipt paper is about the LEAST scary substance to be found on currency.

  21. Barak A. Pearlmutter:

    @Suz, That is *exactly* the kind of emotional data-free argument this post claims to be decrying, albeit pointed in the other direction. BPA-using thermal printer paper is roughly 1% BPA by weight. Do you think the dangerous substances (appropriately defined) found on money are 1% by weight? No they are not, in fact many of the things claimed to be common on money (e.g., cold virus, cocaine, PCBs, and no doubt BPA as well) are present in such minuscule quantities they require quite fancy technology to detect.

    I'm not saying that it is cost effective public health policy to eliminate BPA-using thermal receipt paper. I don't know. It depends not only on the BPA itself and the risk it poses but also on the expense of alternatives. Perhaps there is a way to reduce the concentration and/or bio-availability of BPA in BPA-using paper, which would be a happy medium. Maybe the alternatives are even worse, so dealing with this properly would require converting all point-of-sale thermal printers to ink printers, which would be much more expensive than just changing things at the thermal paper factories. But in any case, given the enormously high concentration involved (1% by weight) then if the alternatives are not substantially more expensive, it seems plausible that this particular risk may well be worth the expense of dealing with.

  22. Suz:

    "Data-free," huh? I don't need a laboratory full of equipment to tell me not to rub my eyes with my grayish-brown fingertips after counting thousands of bills. This is true now and it was true before thermal paper ever touched those bills.

  23. Barak A. Pearlmutter:

    @Suz. There is a difference between "dangerous" and "gross." No doubt there are substantial quantities of gross stuff on money, that turns your fingertips brown. (My guess would be a paste of human mucous and dust composed primarily of flakes of human skin. I'd encourage you to collect some and take a photo with a cheap USB microscope.) But you won't be harmed by drinking a cup full of a mixture of human saliva and snot, with powdered skin flakes and dandruff on top. It may be gross, but it's not dangerous. The same goes for, say, insect parts in peanut butter, or fried chicken at your picnic seething with wriggling fly maggots. On the other hand, there are substances that are dangerous but not gross. This is why we need to use science and logic, rather than our intuition about ickyness, to inform our opinions on public health policy questions like "should BPA-based thermal paper be phased out of use in point-of-sale receipts?"

  24. Suz:

    You're certain? No salmonella from the grocery store? No E-coli from the vet's office? None? Whew! What a relief!

  25. Suz:

    I wonder if anybody has thought to tell people that it MIGHT be unwise to to store one' bills and one's receipts together...

  26. Smock Puppet, Tester of Linguistic Analysis, Bogon School of the Darts:



    >>> if you have absolutely no common sense about doses.

    Ooookay, you appear to be operating under some sort of massive misconception...

    Let's do a test:

    Greens are to Liberals as.......

    Very good, got that one correctly, first try.


    Liberals are to Common Sense as.....

    ANNNK, no, try again.


    ANNNK, no, try again. Your heart and mind are clearly in the right place, but still not quite getting it.


    EXAAACtly right. Separated by a vast, almost uncrossable gulf.

    Ergo -- Using the word "common sense" with Greens is like

    No, no, no, exactly the opposite, in fact... Try again

    Exactly Correct! Greens and common sense are not found in connection with one another, ever.
    In actual fact, the presence of one will literally DRIVE AWAY the other.

    Thus ends todays lesson in syllogisms.
    Thank you for attending.



  27. Smock Puppet, Lifetime Holder of the Chicken Little Chair in Child Envorosafety Development:


    Uh-oh, I bet there's BPA somewhere in that thing, or its wrapping.


    Oh, MY GOD, Stop THEM!! Stop Them NOWWWWW!!!

  28. Smock Puppet, Health Analyst and Environmental Horrorscope Author:

    >>> There is bound to be some risk involved.

    Actually, though, the real thing is that exposure to a certain measure of pretty much everything causes the immune system to kick in and practice doing its job.

    Kinda like doing a night-time military practice exercise with your Infantry unit -- it keeps things from getting flabby.

    In radiation, they call this "hormesis", but it's generally true of most substances and your body's systems.

    In fact, on a farm, you get exposed to a lot more crap, bacteria, fungi, and other noxious substances than in the modern social milieu.

    The net result? Far more children and people have allergic reactions to a much wider range of substances.

    So keeping yourself in a "pristine" environment is probably totally, utterly wrongheaded, too.

    I also wonder how many of these green idiots recognize what pesticides do to kill bugs. Most of them work on a accumulation of toxin-v-body-mass thing. If you lived to be 200, then you're likely to accumulate enough of these pesticide toxins to kill you. Since you don't, it really doesn't matter, so the trade off for a cockroach-reduced environment is that you're gonna die in the next 150-200 years from the accumulated pesticides.

    Just thought you should know that.

  29. Smock Puppet, Health Analyst and Environmental Horrorscope Author:

    The net result? Far more children and people have allergic reactions to a much wider range of substances.

    Oop. That thought got truncated as I was writing it...

    The net result? Far more children and people have allergic reactions to a much wider range of substances if they live/grew up in the city than people/children who live/grew up on farms. And we're talking about substances and such that are both natural and appearing in both places, just in a wider array on the farms, not stuff that is in one place and not the other.