Now the pharmacy giant is being used as a poster child for an issue that spans the retail sector: toxic chemicals used on cash register paper.
Bisphenol-A (BPA) or bisphenol-S (BPS) are used commonly as developing agents on till paper. When touched, the chemicals can be absorbed through the skin and contribute to a number of health risks including cancer and fetal brain development.
In a sample study from 200 retail stores, more than 9 out of 10 receipts tested positive for BPA or BPS, according to 2018 report from The Ecology Center, an environmental nonprofit based in Ann Arbor, Mich.
So why are activists going after CVS?
“CVS prints these ridiculously long receipts, with lots of coupons, which have also tested positive for bisphenol-S,” said Todd Larsen, a co-director of consumer and corporate engagement with Green America, a Washington D.C.-based environmental nonprofit behind the campaign asking companies to cut exposure to hazardous chemicals.
“These are endocrine-disrupting chemicals with proven impacts,” Larsen told Bloomberg Environment. “As one of the largest providers of health products, they should do better.”
CVS ‘Leadership’ Lauded
In an email to Bloomberg Environment, CVS said it is continuing to educate customers about digital options for receipts and rewards. It said “millions of consumers” enrolled to get digital receipts since 2016, “saving more than three billion inches of paper.”
Despite the concerns over receipt paper, CVS still received a grade of B+, according to an annual retail ranking by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. The scores are based on the presence of harmful chemicals in products or supply chains.
“CVS has shown substantial leadership in addressing chemicals, particularly in the area of beauty and personal care products,” said Mike Schade, director of the Mind the Store Campaign for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.
“But while they’re certainly not the only retailer to use bisphenols in receipts, we feel this should be low-hanging fruit for them,” he told Bloomberg Environment.
The Food and Drug Administration banned BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups, and formula packaging in 2012. However it’s still allowed in other products including receipts, plastics, and the lining of cans of food.
More recently some retailers—including Best Buy Co. Inc., Trader Joe’s Co., and Apple Inc.—have switched to phenol-free paper. In 2017, Dow Chemical Co. and Papierfabrik August Koehler SE received an EPA green chemistry award for their patent of phenol-free printing paper.
Given the availability of a reasonably cost-competitive substitute, Schade said, CVS, and other retailers, should take the opportunity to get out ahead of future regulatory actions.
Concerns Over Substitute
A simple trip to the grocery store will yield no shortage of boxes plastered with “BPA free” labels.
In response to public concern over BPA, product manufacturers, including paper companies, opted to simply swap out BPA for its chemical cousin, BPS, which was thought to be safer.
But a growing body of scientific evidence shows that BPS may produce the same, or even greater, endocrine disruptive effects than the original chemical.
“Our study shows that making plastic products with BPA alternatives does not necessarily leave them safer,” wrote Nancy Wayne, a reproductive endocrinologist and professor of physiology at UCLA.
Wayne’s 2016 study found that when zebrafish were exposed to BPS at low levels, their physiology at the embryonic stage changed in as quickly as 25 hours.
“Our findings are frightening—consider it the aquatic version of the canary in the coal mine,” Wayne said.
EU Regulatory Push
The European Union is set to phase out BPA-based paper completely by January 2020.
However, the European Chemical Agency concluded that the substitution of BPS is worrisome given that BPS “is suspected to have many of the same adverse health effects as BPA.”
Currently, BPS is on a list of 107 substances to be evaluated under the EU’s Community Rolling Action Plan. The plan has a September target date for parties to submit chemical test data to ECHA for consideration in future regulations.
While U.S. federal action on bisphenols isn’t likely to advance any time soon, Schade said regulatory decisions have a way of spreading from country to country.
“U.S. retailers definitely take note of what’s happening in Europe,” he said. “Over time I expect we’ll see more states step up to pass restrictions.”