Several years ago, when this little blog was just getting rolling, I wrote a 3-part series on tampons. The title was aptly named Tampax Tampons: Toxic Sticks of Death.
Seven years later, sad but true, this topic needs to be revisited. I wish I was revisiting it with good news to share. I wish we could celebrate that dioxins and other bleaching agents and synthetic fibers have been removed from tampons, leaving us ladies to live a life that includes a happy vagina. Unfortunately, it seems the situation has gotten worse.
When chemical lobbyists and the government approval boards talk about chemicals, they often describe them in parts per million or parts per billion with the common statement that the average exposure of the average consumer isn't enough to cause issue. Here's the thing though: it is enough and it is an issue. A big one.
The average woman menstruating for five days a month for 38 years will use approximately 11,400 tampons in a lifetime, with direct contact to the chemicals in tampons for 2,200 days. And pads. Pads too. Oh, and also baby diapers. Yes, these chemicals are in diapers, ear swabs, cotton pads and toilet paper, too.
The average woman is using tampons or pads for 2,200 days of her life.
Tampons require contact over an extended period of time with one of the body’s most porous and highly absorbent mucous membranes. They are categorized by the FDA as a ‘medical device’, which means that manufacturers aren't required to adhere to the same chemical regulations or labeling regulations as foods, drugs or cosmetics. Testing on chemical levels in tampons is done by the manufacturer or private researcher with findings presented to regulating bodies for review. When we consider that North American women spend an average of two billion dollars per year on these commercial brands of sanitary napkins and tampons, and few are asking questions, brands like Proctor & Gamble - the makers of Tampax - have no incentive to fix what is very, very broken.
What I didn't know when I wrote my first series of posts on tampons back in 2008 was that Monsanto had pulled up a chaise lounge in my vagina and was serving up a chemical vag cocktail of glyphosate, dioxin and chlorine. If my vagina could talk, it would likely have said, "What the f--- are you doing here?!?!"
If my vagina could talk, it would likely have said, "What the f--- are you doing here?!?!"
Let's back up a minute and go through this in an orderly manner.
What Are Tampons Made Of
Originally tampons were made of 100% cotton, and if you are still using them, this is what you want to look for: 100% organic cotton. Current conventional tampons may include:
- Conventional Cotton: Cotton is one of the most heavily sprayed crops in the world. More below.
- Polyester: Polyester is a plastic derived from crude oil. We often see this in clothing when it is drawn out in long thin fibers and woven together. It also doesn't hold liquid well, making it an interesting choice for a tampon.
- Viscose Rayon: A plant-derived fiber of regenerated cellulose. It can be produced from a variety of plants. In north america, rayon is most commonly produced by wood pulp, sugar cane and soy. Remember that in North America 93% of soy is genetically modified. Overseas you'll find bamboo-derived rayon.
Polyacrylate Rayon and Carboxymehtylcellulose were both required to be removed from tampons by law due to their association with Toxic Shock Syndrome. In private testing, these synthetic materials were attracting the bacteria that lead to TSS. The lesser of the evil synthetics was the Viscose Rayon blend and this is what remains in conventional tampons.
Additional ingredients typically include:
- absorbency enhancers
- synthetic deodorants
- artificial fragrances
Each of these chemicals carry their own list of ingredients but under the labelling laws for medical devices do not need to be disclosed.
The Pearly White Tampons + Dioxin
The pearly white tampons used in commercials sure look pretty, don't they? But why? Why do they have to be so white? We all know what's going to happen when they get used. None of us are filling a glass with blue water and watching how pretty it looks as tampons suck up all that liquid. No. They are being inserted into the dark nethers of our vagina to absorb menstrual blood. They are white for the thirty seconds between taking them out of the package and inserting them.
The chlorine bleaching of tampons is where we used to think the greatest danger was. The bleaching process creates chlorinated hydrocarbons, a hazardous group of chemicals with byproducts that includes dioxins, some of the most toxic substances known. According to the Environment Protection Agency [EPA], no safe level for dioxin exposure exists. Dioxins are what we call persistent organic pollutants - they do not break down, and instead accumulate in our tissue with repeated exposure. Tampon use would be a rather perfect example of repeated exposure.
This causes something called toxic accumulation and one of the most powerful ways a woman detoxes these chemicals is through the umbilical cord into her fetus.
Responding to protests from consumers, the tampon industry changed its bleaching method to Elemental Chlorine Free (EFC) bleaching. This method replaces chlorine gas with chlorine dioxide, recognized for its disinfectant properties. Chlorine dioxide kills microorganisms by disrupting the transport of nutrients across the cell membrane.
As I wrote in my original post:
"The makers use the theory that chlorine dioxide is far less reactive with organic materials than the previously used chlorine bleach. With no pure chlorine involved, EFC bleaching should theoretically result in a dioxin free product. This, however, is not the case. Studies have shown that the manufacturing of chlorine dioxide does not produce a pure product, as chemical reactions that take place during the bleaching process free elemental chlorine atoms, therefore releasing dioxin. The Worldwatch Institute has referred to ECF bleaching as a ‘low-tar cigarette’ strategy', lowering the amount of dioxins, not eliminating them."
According to the world health organization, dioxins are "highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer."
The vaginal wall contains moist and highly absorbent fatty tissue and toxins have an affinity to fat cells. One of the diseases most directly linked to the endocrine-disrupting effect of dioxin released from tampons is endometriosis, and there is an accumulating body of evidence connecting dioxin levels with infertility. Dioxin induces an increase in estrogen levels, which is linked to sex-hormone related cancers of the breast and reproductive organs.
In addition to cancer and endometriosis the enzyme, hormonal and growth disruption caused by dioxin exposure has been linked:
- birth defects
- the inability to maintain pregnancy
- decreased fertility
- reduced sperm count
- immune system suppression
And the list continues.
Given that the ECF bleaching also acts as an anti-microbial agent, it also serves to imbalance the vaginal ecosystem, making it a prime environment for yeast infections.
But wait, there's more.
Glyphosate In Tampons
Glyphosate is known to cause severe damage in the body and has even been implicated in the rise of gluten sensitivity. One of the many concerning areas of research I found when I was doing research for The UnDiet Cookbook was how glyphosate impairs the body's natural ability to detoxify itself.
"A 2013 study showed the connection between glyphosate, an active ingredient in [Monsanto's] herbicide, and the impairment of cytochrome P450, an enzyme that helps the body detoxify environmental toxins. The study states, “Characteristics of celiac disease point to impairment in many cytochrome P450 enzymes, which are involved with detoxifying environmental toxins, activating vitamin D3, catabolizing vitamin A, and maintaining bile acid production and sulfate supplies to the gut.” The connection between the introduction and increased intake of other GMO foods and increased levels of stress and toxins, coupled with gluten-induced intestinal damage, creates the perfect storm for gluten-sensitivity and celiac disease to blow in and leave a wake of damage, indigestion, and nutrient malabsorption." - The UnDiet Cookbook, page 20
While Monsanto is busy suing independent farmers and demanding that the World Health Organization retract its classification of glyphosate as a possible carcinogen, it's being used widely in both genetically modified crops as well as in the common herbicide Roundup that is sprayed on conventional crops, including cotton. In fact, Monsanto also makes a genetically modified cotton called Roundup Ready Flex Cotton.
According to the report, Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Thirteen Years, by Charles Benbrook, "In cotton, the average rate of glyphosate rose from 0.63 pounds in 1996 to 1.89 pounds in 2007 — clearly good news for the manufacturers of glyphosate herbicides, but bad news for farmers and the environment. Most of this increase was driven by the need to make additional Roundup applications. One application of glyphosate brought about adequate control in 1996 on most cotton farms. Just two years later, 1.5 applications were necessary. By 2003, an average of two applications were made, and by 2007, 2.4 applications. During this time period, the average one-time rate of application went up by 25%, from 0.63 to 0.79 pounds per cotton acre. Glyphosate use on cotton per crop year rose 18.2% per year from 1996 to 2007 as a result of the introduction of RR cotton."
Conventional farmers in North America have been using glyphosate increasingly since Monsanto introduced genetically modified crops into the food supply in the mid-90's. The concept being that these crops are genetically engineered to withstand being sprayed with Roundup herbicide - allowing the bugs to be killed, not the plant. The cute part here is that nature is wiser than greedy corporations and "Roundup Ready" corn, soybeans and other crops have developed resistance to glyphosate, leading farmers to use even more of the herbicide.
In 2003, 84 million pounds of pesticides were sprayed on 14.4 million acres of US conventional cotton. These chemicals are some of the most toxic used in agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency has declared seven of the top 15 to be ‘possible’, ‘likely’, ‘probable’, or ‘known’ human carcinogens. In India where over one third of the world’s cotton comes from, cotton accounts for 54% of all pesticides used annually while occupying just 5% of cropland. One of these chemicals is glyphosate.
According to a study released in late 2015, an Argentinian research lab reportedly found glyphosate in eighty-five percent of the tampons, and other cotton sanitary products that were tested. Further, 62% of the samples tested positive for AMPA, glyphosate's metabolite, according to the study conducted by researchers at the Socio-Environmental Interaction Space (EMISA) of the University of La Plata in Argentina. The brands tested included the American brands, Kotex and O.B.
In 2012, it was estimated that 80% of the cotton grown in the US was Roundup Ready. Herbicide tolerant cotton was approved in Canada in March of 2015 under a table referred to as "Novel Food Decision". Novel is one word for it.
- Malaoxon & Malathion
- Piperonyl Butoxide
What Can We Do To Keep The Chemicals Out
- Add Your Name: When you see those petitions come your way, or there is a vote in your local election, opt to have GMOs labelled so we at least get to choose what we eat and insert.
- Vote With Your Dollar: Buy from the brands you want to support. Leave the rest on the shelf. If we stop buying toxic products, companies are going to change how they're making them.
- Share this post: Share this on your social media channels to help get the word out that something has to change.
- Send Letters To The Makers: There are humans behind these products. Lots of them. You can find brand managers for products like Tampax, Pampers, QTip and more very quickly on LinkedIn. Or simply post to the Facebook pages of these brands.
You can come up with your own creative message, or share this simple one:
Over 84 million pounds of pesticides are sprayed on cotton crops every year in the United States. You are part of this problem. It's time to ditch the endocrine disrupting, carcinogenic chemicals in your products. The health of your farmers, suppliers, and customers matter. http://undiet.me/toxictampons
Thankfully There Are Options
To help you vote with your dollar and reduce your toxic load, try these wonderful options by these great companies:
Organic Cotton Pads and Tampons
The Menstrual Cup
This is my preferred option. I find it comfortable, low maintenance, reliable and works with my lifestyle.
Please help ensure the health and safety of the women in your life.
All of this matters and though I know people will argue about the technicalities and safety levels, at the end of the day, our bodies are being overwhelmed by chemicals. There are currently 80,000 chemicals approved for use and 60,000 of these were grandfathered in, assumed safe but never tested. We don't know for sure what's causing the increasing numbers of cancers and other diseases, but the chemical load we carry is not part of the solution. When in doubt, get it out. There are many things we can't choose and can't control, but this is one of the things we very easily can choose.
This instead of that and it just might make all the difference in your world.