Tampon Safety and Our Monthly Affair with Toxins

While 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.

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?