The Shocking Truth About Feminine Hygiene Products--What Are Your Options?

The thought of women unknowingly putting potentially cancerous materials directly in contact with their vaginas seems appalling; especially when this could be a potential contributor to uterine and/or ovarian cancer.

Fortunately there are safer alternatives available, and that most women don't know about them really struck a cord and convinced me to write about this problem -- and about some of the solutions.

Before I tell you about the safer alternative menstrual products, I'd like to give you some background. When I went online to research, I discovered that dioxin was not the only threat to women. Actually, there are two basic problems with synthetic menstrual products:

(1) the synthetic materials are often so absorbent that they create a perfect breeding ground for Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), especially in young females who haven't had time to develop the necessary antibodies; and

(2) the chlorine used in the bleaching process can release dioxin, a known carcinogen, into a woman's vagina and uterus.

Both these problems are controversial, and both stem from the fact that most manufacturers use synthetic materials. Ironically, both of these potential dangers to women were known about years ago. As far back as 1980, Procter and Gamble Rely Tampons were discovered to have caused the death of 38 women from Toxic Shock Syndrome.

A big flurry of publicity followed. Rely tampons were taken off the market and women were warned to use the least absorbent tampon possible. However, it is an industry-known fact that there were no real standards for arbsorbency, and one company's "absorbent" product might actually have been more absorbent than another company's "super absorbent" product!

Although the number of TSS cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control has admittedly dropped since the Rely tampon tragedy, many experts attribute this decrease to the termination of active surveillance by the Centers for Disease Control.

According to Tom Riley, author of Price of a Life, who has represented more victims of Toxic Shock Syndrome than any other attorney: "All experts agree that the number of TSS cases in the United States are under-reported. That is because reporting by the states to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is voluntary and most states are unwilling to incur the expense of gathering the data and submitting it to the CDC.

As certain as the sun's appearance in the East tomorrow, toxic shock syndrome will also appear in one or more tampon users, sometimes with deadly results but always with the infliction of a terrible ordeal and some residual effects." And according to a February, 1999 USA Today article: "By CDC estimates, 1,300 people get toxic-shock syndrome each year. Half are related to tampons; 5% die." In short, Toxic Shock Syndrome is alive and well.

The truth is, most of the testing that is done on menstrual products is paid for by the manufacturers themselves, and there are very few independent studies. There is one exception. In 1994, two New York University Medical Center researchers, Drs. Philip Tierno and Bruce Hanna -- the only such independent researchers -- tested 100 percent cotton tampons for the first time.

According to a 1999 article in E Magazine, "their studies concluded that tampons containing synthetics amplify the production of the TSS-causing toxin by certain strains of bacteria, whereas the all-cotton tampons produced no measurable toxin." And the same article quotes Dr. Tierno as saying, "Synthetic tampons absorb more water than [does] cotton, leaving behind concentrated proteins that are used by staph bacteria to create the toxin, creating toxin factories."

To this day, it is believed that most menstrual products still contain rayon, a synthetic material, but this cannot be confirmed. Nor do we have any idea what other ingredients are in these products, since manufacturers are not required to disclose them.

As you know, eHealthy News has reported many times on the dangers of dioxin -- in particular, the dangers of dioxin with relation to our food and environment. One exception: a letter in April, 1999, about dioxin as a threat to women because it is a byproduct of the bleaching process used to manufacture tampons and pads.

The confusion surrounding the dioxin issue is very similar to the Toxic Shock Syndrome issue, again with controversy on both sides. This issue, too, has been known about for years. In 1989, concerned women launched a 6-week campaign in Great Britain to force the manufacturers of diapers and feminine hygiene products to change their manufacturing process, in order to get rid of the dioxin problem.

Repeated exposure to dioxin can lead to cancer, as well as to "non-cancer health effects, including developmental delays, birth defects, hormone disruption and immune cell suppression. The toxin accumulates in humans, particularly women's body fat and breast milk, with repeated exposures, and 16,800 tampons over the course of a lifetime certainly qualifies." ("The Hidden Price of Feminine Hygiene Products," E-Magazine, Jennifer Bogo).

Their grassroots campaign was extremely successful; it changed the way menstrual products were manufactured in Great Britain.

Actually, it seems that countries other than ours have been much quicker to remedy the potential dioxin problem. According to Karen Houppert, author of both the book, The Curse, and the extremely informative Village Voice article, "Pulling the Plug on the Tampon Industry," while this country's Environmental Protection Agency prolongs the debate over dioxin's dangers and drags its heels about regulating organochlorines, in many other countries, there has been a great deal more progress.

According to Ms. Houppert: "In Germany, 50 per cent of the paper industry has already switched from a chlorine bleaching process to a less toxic alternative.

Ontario and British Columbia have passed laws requiring pulp mills to eliminate organochlorine discharges by 2002... The Paris Commission got 13 nations to agree to eliminate organochlorine effluent, and the Barcelona Convention got a similar promise from 21 Mediterranean nations."

Here in America, it's been a different story. It's true that some reporters have expressed concern: In addition to Ms. Houppert's book and articles, there have been several articles in the alternative presses about the problem, including two in E Magazine (article 1, article 2), and two in Vegetarian Times, including one here. In addition, there have been articles in newspapers and in various campus publications.

Two Differing Opinions

On its website, the FDA says that, while there may have been a problem in the past with chlorine bleaching, "rayon raw material used in U.S. tampons is now produced using elemental chlorine-free or totally chlorine free bleaching processes." This method of bleaching, the FDA concludes, does not produce dioxin.

Others disagree, and recently, the Environmental Protection Agency which, in past years, underplayed the dangers from dioxin, issued a report, which stated, according to the New York Times, that "the chemical is 10 times more likely to cause cancer than previously estimated." (NY Times, May 18, 2000)

But there have been few hard-hitting articles examining these problems (and the available alternative products) in the major presses.


Most probably, because of pressure from the corporate manufacturers. Nor have there been ads for alternative products in the major magazines, since the alternative product manufacturers are all small, mostly women-run companies that simply do not have the money and clout to do more aggressive marketing. In general, they get their customers through word of mouth and articles and small ads in feminist, environmental and women's health publications.

Practical Options

Start investigating the safer, more environment-friendly feminine hygiene products on the market. There are several. If you're looking for the convenience of disposables, you will want to use pads or tampons that are cotton, yet do NOT contain synthetic materials. Even the large companies have tried producing such products, most notably Procter and Gamble's Tampax Naturals but, according to an the E-Magazine article already quoted, this product was pulled from the market because it was not a "big seller."

Finding organic cotton menstrual products would be preferable, anyway, since organic cotton, like organic food, is produced using more stringent standards. Like organic food, the cotton will contain no pesticides and will therefore be a hopefully purer product.

There are many disposable organic cotton products, manufactured by companies such as Organic Essentials and Natracare. (Others will be listed below.) And there are reusable organic cotton pads, such as GladRags. These products, and others, are sold at Whole Foods and other stores whose emphasis is on health and sustainability.

Another reusable product, The Keeper, manufactured by The Keeper, Inc., is a natural rubber cup, which is worn internally during your period. While not easily found in stores, The Keeper is available via the web, both from the manufacturer and through the product's many distributors worldwide.

Women who are concerned about the environment will probably want to explore reusable menstrual products, because disposables, even organic cotton disposables, by their very nature, do impact the environment. If flushed down the toilet, disposable pads and tampons can clog the sewer line; or they can go on to play havoc with the water treatment plant. It has been reported that, in 90% of plumbing problems, the culprits are non-reusable menstrual products!

I hope you will want to investigate the many brands and kinds of menstrual products on the market. Below, you will find several informative websites.

Some -- But Not All -- Of The Products Worth Investigating:


The Keeper

Organic Essentials



Terra Femme

Many Moons

And Some Very Interesting Sites That Deal With This Topic:

Museum of Menstruation

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

I have been aware of this problem for some time but never knew of any definitive reviews on this important topic.

This is certainly an article you will want to email to as many of your female friends as possible.

Related Articles:

Women Beware: Most Feminine Hygiene Products Contain Toxic Ingredients

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