Tampon Safety and Our Monthly Affair with Toxins


While the pervasive BPA (bisphenol A) is now receiving a lot of attention from environmental and reproductive health advocates, another chemical affecting women’s reproductive health is sliding under the radar. Dioxin, a toxic by-product of chlorine-bleaching in the manufacturing of tampons (and paper products), has been a cause for concern for over 15 years.

A 1994 report for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that dioxin is linked to cancer (especially breast cancer), an increased risk of endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility and immune system suppression. This same report states that no level of exposure to dioxin is safe, yet women are inserting this chemical directly into their vaginas on a monthly basis for hours or days at a time.

The National Research Center for Women’s and Families said in their July 2009 report:

The FDA says that the exposure to dioxin from tampons today “is many times less than normally present in the body from other environmental sources, so small that any risk of adverse health effects is considered negligible.” However, according to Dr. Philip Tierno, director of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at the New York University Medical Center and a leading expert on the health risks of tampons, even trace amounts of dioxin are cause for concern because tampons come in contact with some of the most absorbent tissue in the body.

The same report also states that the effects of dioxins are cumulative and can be measured 20 to 30 years after exposure. Statistics show that 53 percent of American women use tampons regularly, and that a woman can use 16,800 tampons in her lifetime. Therefore many women have had significant direct exposure to dioxin.

Even more troubling is that there, as with BPA, there is no federal regulation of this chemical. Tampon manufacturers are required to monitor the levels of dioxins in their products but these records are not available to the public.

In 2008, Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) introduced the Robin Danielson Act (H.R. 5181), legislation for tampon safety. Specifically, it directs the National Institute of Health (NIH) to conduct research on the potential health risks of dioxin, synthetic fibers and other additives in tampons and related feminine products, in addition to requiring the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to collect and report information on Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). This legislation is still pending. So in the meantime, the onus is on the consumer to find alternative products, even though there is little mainstream discussion or awareness of dioxins and their effects on women’s reproductive health.

Even though there is a market for organic tampons and menstrual products, it’s not a guarantee that they are dioxin-free. Tampons that are 100 percent cotton aren’t necessarily entirely safe either because the cotton may be contaminated with pesticides, so labels should specifically state whether or not they were chlorine-bleached. Seventh Generation and Natracare offer these products but they are often more difficult to find (even in large cities) and can be considerably more expensive. Alternative products continue to emerge such as reusable cups and cloth pads but none of these have achieved mainstream use. Accessibility to these options is an issue for low-income women, women outside of urban centers, and immigrant women, so awareness of and disparities in exposure and protection from these chemicals are systemic.

Tampons can be a convenient blessing for active women on their menstrual (moon) cycle but what are the long-term effect for a few hours of temporary comfort?

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  • wildorchid

    Most of the menstrual cups are made from 100% medical-grade silicone. So no possibly dangerous chemicals! And they are much more comfortable than tampons and don’t smell like pads.

    • prochoiceferret

      Most of the menstrual cups are made from 100% medical-grade silicone. So no possibly dangerous chemicals! And they are much more comfortable than tampons and don’t smell like pads.

      And you only have to buy them once, which helps with the whole accessibility-to-low-income-women thing.

       

      Sadly, many women get a bit skeeved out by the possibility of having to clean out their cups in a washroom sink, where other women might see it….

  • saltyc

    Out of my daughter’s old cloth diapers. Very simple and cheap, sounds gross but it’s not. Sometimes I soak them in peroxide to take out stains, but usually if you keep them soaked in water in a container for the five days, then wash in cold water with some vinegar they won’t stain too bad.

  • ahunt

    Exactly, and it is a reasonable skeeve, unless one carries chlorax wipes in their purse.

  • teedub

    I’ve recently tried the cup and love it! I also noticed much less bleeding, or more specifically, fewer days spent bleeding. “Normally” when using tampons, I would spend close to 5 days menstating. With the cup, i swear it was like 2.5 days and one of those days was super light.

    I suspect but have no proof, that tampons have a chemical that makes you bleed more, thus neccistating a need to purchase more tampons.

  • prochoiceferret

    Exactly, and it is a reasonable skeeve, unless one carries chlorax wipes in their purse.

    What, you mean for the bloody bits of uterine lining that won’t quite make it through the strainer at the bottom of the sink? I thought it was more common to just empty the cup into the toilet, then rinse it in the sink…

  • qob

    but you don’t have to fully clean them at every change. In fact, leaving a bit of fluid on them makes them easier to reinsert.

    Empty the cup down the toilet, (wipe with tissue if you like), reinsert, wipe fingers, THEN go wash your hands at the public sink with no more blood on your hands than you’d get from using pads or tampons.

  • prochoiceferret

    but you don’t have to fully clean them at every change. In fact, leaving a bit of fluid on them makes them easier to reinsert.

    Huh. So I guess it really is possible to use a cup without other women in the washroom being the wiser. Good to know.

     

    All you’re left with then is the skeeviness many women feel at having to reach in, without a convenient applicator….

  • jaz

    Thanks for the comments and suggestions! I have been thinking about trying the cup but have been a little hesitant and fearful…like what if I don’t put it in right, it leaks, I break it, etc. Now I’m inspired, ladies!

  • catseye71352

    I’m just relieved I no longer have to deal with it.  <]:-P

  • dialzero

    Not at all necessary.  The cup holds so much that most people can go the whole day without having to empty it in public.  For the heavy bleeders among us, we have learned to take a damp paper towel in the stall to wipe the cup off with.  There’s this misconception that tampons are sterile and therefore menstrual cups should be as well, but that’s just not true or necessary.

    Thanks to my cup, I don’t have leaks, and I have not walked down “that” aisle of a drugstore in 8 years… I could not be happier about this!

  • halli620

    If you buy them in bulk, like from Amazon.com or the special prices for 12+ from drugstore.com, they’re much more reasonable than individually at places like Whole Foods.

     

    Love the non-applicator ones – so easy to carry around, and no extra garbage created.