My friend N. called me yesterday to tell me she just got her period. “What is the Green Mama approach to dealing with this?” she asked. N. was new to green, but had already begun cloth diapering her baby, ate local foods, and had generally become curious about many things she used to take for granted. I am always surprised when women ask me about this issue, but I shouldn’t. It’s a big one: expensive in dollars, health effects, and waste.
Menstrual products are no little business. Women spend approximately $17 every month on tampons, panty liners, and maxi-pads. (Plus tax, because, after all, feminine “hygiene” products are a luxury, kind of like a sailboat or a fancy red car, don’t you think?) Almost 70 percent of menstruating women in the United States use tampons. In her lifetime, a woman will use as many as 16,800 tampons, supporting a $718 million market. Each of those tampons and pads represents the waste of the packaging, the product itself, any related plastic applicators, as well as the more “hidden” environmental costs of transporting the materials and the finished product, and dumping chlorine bleach, fragrance, and other materials into the environment.
There is a greener and healthier way.
TAMPONS & HEALTH
Most major brands of tampons and menstrual pads, such as Playtex, O.B., Tampax and others, use a chlorine bleaching process to whiten their products. This process results in the production of dioxin—a type of “organochlorine” as is DDT, PCBs and Agent Orange—that is linked to cancer, especially breast cancer, immune system suppression, endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, and low sperm count.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), citing evidence from scientists around the world, “frankly admit that pinpointing an acceptable exposure level is almost irrelevant,” says a 1995 Village Voice article. Given that dioxin bioaccumulates and can remain in the body 20 or 30 years after exposure, “the real danger comes from repeated contact.” The EPA study showed that dioxins, in levels previously thought acceptably low, can severely effect the body.
Chlorine-bleached tampons can leave minute amounts of the dioxins in the vagina. Even trace amounts of dioxins are cause for concern because tampons come into contact with some of the most absorbent tissue in the body, says Dr. Philip Tierno, Jr., a director of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at the New York University Medical Center and a leading expert on the health risks of tampons, in research collected by the National Research Center for Women and Families (NRC).
BLEACHING IS NOT STERILIZING
Bleaching menstrual products does not mean they are sterile. Tampons, in fact, are not sterile. Neither are disposable pads. These industries work under no regulations to ensure sanitation. The bleaching process only ensure the products are white. There are smaller companies who have managed to whiten their menstrual products using hydrogen peroxide, a safer alternative to chlorine bleach. Many of these same companies have removed rayon altogether.
THE TOXIC SHOCK SYNDROME LINK
In tampons, women have to worry both about bleaching and about rayon. Most major tampon brands contain rayon, another product of a chlorine bleaching process. Tampons have been shown to leave behind fibers from the rayon that damage a woman’s vagina by causing ulcerations and peeling of the mucus membrane and have been linked to Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), a potentially fatal disease that primarily strikes tampon users under the age of 30. Though the FDA claims that TSS cases have dropped in recent years, Dr. Tierno, Jr.’s research, according to the NRC, suggests that the actual number of “clinical cases” has not changed. When researchers tested 20 varieties of tampons for their ability to induce TSS toxins, the bacteria were detected in all US brands. According to Tierno, the evidence suggests that synthetic additives increase the production of the TSS toxin, while all-cotton tampons do not.
SIGNIFICANT RISKS FOR TAMPON USERS
The FDA came under attack in 1992 for downplaying the risks of dioxins in tampons and for altering their dioxin report to fit this claim. The Wall Street Journal, which covered the FDA hearings, revealed that the FDA had left this line out its final report for the public on dioxin levels: “It appear that the most significant risks may occur in tampon products.” Subcommittee chair Ted Weiss accused the FDA of ignoring its own scientist’s warnings. The Village Voice reported that “Weiss’s staff had uncovered a March 1989 memo stating that the risk of dioxin in tampons ‘can be quite high.’ While the memo advised that ‘the most effective risk-management strategy would be to assure that tampons… contain no dioxin.'”
But, the FDA never tested tampon safety. According to the NRC, the FDA admitted that their decision to declare tampons safe was based entirely on industry-supplied test results. The FDA conducted no independent tests to verify the manufacturers’ data on dioxin levels and safety. The FDA currently requires tampon manufacturers to monitor dioxin levels in their products but the results are not available to the public.
Meanwhile, it has been more than ten years since women in Great Britain successfully got British manufacturers of tampons and pads to stop using a chlorine gas process after scientific reports there revealed the dangers of dioxins in diapers and menstrual products. Similar efforts are underway in Australia, Canada and elsewhere.
Recognizing the importance of more research on this subject, Representative Carolyn Maloney, (D–New York), introduced the Robin Danielson Act that “directs the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct research to determine the extent to which the presence of dioxin, synthetic fibers, and other additives in tampons and related products pose any health risks to women.” The legislation also asks the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to collect and report information on Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS).
Women have silently watched while the $1.7 billion sanitary protection industry has grown fat off their blood. Even shampoo products are required to list ingredients, while tampons, which are exposed to some of the most vulnerable tissue in a woman’s body, are not. There are, however, safer, greener, and more economical alternatives for women.
HEALTHIER & GREENER ALTERNATIVES:
ORGANIC COTTON DISPOSABLE TAMPONS & PADS:
Seventh Generation, organic cotton, non-chlorine bleach, rayon-free tampons & pads.
Natracare, organic cotton, non-chlorine bleach, rayon-free tampons & pads.
Organic Essentials organic cotton, non-chlorine bleach, rayon-free tampons & pads.
REUSABLE TAMPON ALTERNATIVES:
Sea Pearls Menstrual Sponge all-natural, dioxin- and rayon-free & reusable. (NOTE: these are a very easy to use alternative to tampons. They are re-usable for about 6 months or more.)
MENSTRUAL CUPS: Menstrual cups are soft, internally-worn, reusable. (NOTE: menstrual cups take a few times to get the hang of, but like can be left in for hours as they “absorb” better than any other products. They are also reusable for years, contain no dioxin, no rayon, and are easy to maintain. They are thus the MOST AFFORDABLE of all options.) Menstrual cups usually come in two sizes: A or 2 (for after childbirth/c-section/turning 30) and B or 1 (for before).
The Keeper the original menstrual cup, made from latex (natural gum rubber).
Moon Cups, by the maker of the Keeper, made from medical-grade silicone.
Diva Cup made from medical-grade silicone.
WASHABLE MENSTRUAL PADS: Usually made from cotton and often coming in very nifty colors, washable menstrual pads are reusable, cloth alternatives to traditional menstrual pads. They usually come either in different absorbencies or can be adjusted to work with light to heavy flows. Here are just a few options: