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Eco Etiquette: Is My Toilet Paper Toxic?

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Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

Hello, just wondering if there is a toilet paper on the market that does not contain BPA.

-Dorothy

There are BPA-free toilet paper options, Dorothy, but before we delve into this delicate matter, let's first (ahem) back it up, shall we? Because I know some of you right now are probably wondering, Wait, why is Dorothy asking about BPA-free toilet paper? Are you telling me I'm dabbing my nether regions with a potentially toxic endocrine disruptor that's been linked to cancer, heart disease and infertility?!

To which I have to answer: quite possibly. In fact, if you're an environmentally minded Huffington Post Green reader, I'm going to have to upgrade my answer to: most probably. Hold onto your hats, tree huggers, because you're not going to like what I'm about to say: BPA has largely been detected in recycled toilet paper.

(My husband is glancing over my shoulder as I write this and asking me if this means we can have fluffy toilet paper again. Sorry honey, it doesn't, as I'll explain in a second.)

It seems an unfair indignity for those of us who have been suffering rough rolls in the name of saving trees all these years. Truthfully, I almost didn't want to write this column, because I was afraid that once people read that BPA is in recycled toilet paper, they'd start swapping out the Seventh Generation for Scott Extra Soft faster than you can say Can you spare a sustainable square?

I think the issue is important to highlight, though, because it's really about so much more than the question of quilted or two-ply; it's about how BPA and other unregulated and potentially dangerous chemicals have become so pervasive that they're in virtually everything we come into contact with. BPA has been found in baby bottles, in canned foods, in pizza boxes and in dental sealants -- even on our hard-earned cash.

So how did it wind up in toilet paper? Well, it turns out that one of the largest sources of BPA exposure is cash register receipts (the chemical is used as a printing aid on thermal paper). According to a study last year by Environmental Working Group, some 40 percent of receipts from major US businesses -- including Walmart and Whole Foods -- tested positive for the chemical. Newspaper ink is another source.

Yet, recycled toilet paper manufacturers don't typically use newspaper and thermal receipts for their recycled paper. Marcal, for instance, states on its website that its pulp is "primarily made up of used magazines, bulk mailings (junk mail), office paper waste and computer print-outs, in addition to scraps or trimmings from printers which would otherwise end up in landfills."

But clearly, there is some sort of contamination going on. A study published last month in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found widespread occurrence of BPA in paper products, including 80 of the 99 toilet-paper-containing samples tested. The researchers cited contamination during the recycling process as the source.

This backs up findings from a previous study at the Wessex Institute of Technology that tracked estrogen pollution in wastewater to BPA in toilet paper.

So, is it time to switch to a conventional toilet paper like Charmin, which is made from virgin paper (i.e., forests)? No buts about it: I say no. The Environmental Science & Technology study detected BPA in recycled-content toilet paper at microgram-per-gram concentrations; contrast that with thermal paper receipts, which contained milligram-per-gram amounts.

And even if you decided to give up recycled toilet paper at home, you'd still have to tote around your own roll on the go: The average recycled content in the commercial toilet paper used in public restrooms is 60 percent.

From both an environmental and health perspective, the far graver danger is the millions of acres of forest, including old growth forest (our greatest defense against global warming) being destroyed so that we can wipe ourselves with ridges. Or the carcinogenic chemicals like dioxin being released into the atmosphere when conventional toilet paper is bleached.

If you're set on a BPA-free toilet paper, then at least try a tree-free one made from sugarcane bagasse. Or a bidet. Even reusable toilet paper (though admittedly not for the faint of heart). Anything, please, but flushing a 300-year-old tree down the toilet.

The bottom line is that these days, there's no such thing as completely non-toxic toilet paper: The recycled stuff is tainted with micrograms of BPA from other sources we also come into contact with, daily. But production of conventional tissue is a greater contributor to a toxic environment. For my money, the choice is in the can.

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