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Toxic Tampons: How Ordinary Feminine Care Products Could Be Hurting Women

We talk about toxins in food and cosmetics -- but the dangerous chemicals inside tampons and pads are being ignored.

Nowadays, we hear a lot about the noxious cocktail of chemicals that can be found in our food, furniture, cleaning products and even our cosmetics. Yet we never really hear about what might be included in some of the most intimate personal care products women use.

“Chem Fatale” — a  report recently released by Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) — attempts to shed some light on this subject by taking aim at the $3-billion-a-year feminine care industry. In particular, the group examines products such as maxi pads, tampons and douches that contain potentially harmful ingredients including pesticides, dyes and dioxin, which has been  identified by the World Health Organization as a Persistent Organic Pollutant, a  toxic chemical that persists in environments for long periods of time. The report also includes a  “Hall of Shame” appendix that features examples of feminine care brands that contain toxic chemicals.

“I think the question of how toxic [feminine care products] might be is one of those things that is not talked about because there is a such a mystique around the vagina,” says Ogonnaya Dotson-Newman, Director of Environmental Health at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and a WVE board member. “It’s highly taboo and something that’s not supposed to be discussed in polite company.”

Even those curious enough to put in the extra effort to find out what’s in these products would be hard-pressed to find any concrete answers. Since tampons and sanitary pads are regulated as “medical devices” the industry is not required to disclose any of their ingredients.

The WVE report highlights tampons as particularly problematic, as they are used by 85 percent of women and often contain chemicals linked to cancer, including dioxin.

As dioxin is a byproduct of chlorine bleaching and most sanitary napkins and tampons contain chemically-bleached cotton and rayon, it’s likely that most of these products on the market contain at least some levels of dioxin residue. A  study published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2002 found dioxin in four different brands of tampons, albeit at low levels. However, since the US Environmental Protection Agency released an  in-depth report on dioxins in 2012 that concluded that dioxins could have “potentially serious [health] effects at ultra-low levels of exposure,” the presence of dioxins at any level in tampons can be a cause for concern.

Unlike pads and tampons, feminine wipes and washes are not considered medical devices and are instead categorized as cosmetics. This means they are subject to the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA), which mandates that manufacturers disclose their ingredient list on the product. However, the FPLA contains a legal loophole that exempts “individual fragrance ingredients” from labeling requirements. With this in mind, many manufacturers can choose any chemical they do not wish to disclose to the public and simply list it as a “fragrance.”

“It is amazing how little information is out there about chemicals in products,” notes Robin Dodson, a research scientist with the Silent Spring Institute, based in Newton, Mass. “Without actually testing the products, it is not possible to know their actual chemical composition. So, while label reading can be helpful for some chemicals of concern, it is not comprehensive.”

For example, according to the WVE report, many feminine hygiene products have been found to contain quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin, which in turn release formaldehyde — a known carcinogen. The report also notes that feminine wipes and washes have been found to be used in greater numbers by black and Latina women, meaning they may have disproportionate health impacts for women of color.