Guinea Pigs Should Not Use Tampons
Its that time of the month again -- when an e-mail pops up in your inbox with the subject heading "danger!" and the warning that your tampons could be killing you. The e-mail promises all sorts of scary things: manufacturers are adding asbestos to your tampons to make you bleed more so you'll buy more tampons; the bleaching of your tampon creates a chemical called dioxin, which has been linked to cancer; the synthetic fibers in your tampons are the perfect breeding ground for the staph bacteria that causes toxic shock syndrome. But just how much of this is true? And if it's true, what should you do about it?
Well, don't ask me. I have no idea just how dangerous your bleached-out synthetic tampons really are. All I know is that I spent hours investigating the "truth" behind these e-mails and I came away more confused than when I started. This tampon story, as viewed through the lurid lens of public debate, is infused with high drama and a set cast of characters, from corporate villains to incompetent government officials to Internet conspiracists. And each one of them insists the others are spreading false information. At the end of my search, I decided I needed a scorecard to keep track of which disposable tampon was going to win my disposable income:
The "Evil Corporate Empire"
First of all, everyone -- even the most rabid Internet activist -- agrees that the asbestos rumor is simply an urban legend.
But what about dioxin? Dioxin is more famously known as the toxin in Agent Orange, the one that caused cancer and other nasty diseases in Vietnam veterans. It's been found in tampons because it's a chemical byproduct of the paper bleaching process.
Dioxin is a scary chemical that you definitely don't want in your vagina. For that matter, you don't want it in your air or water either, but it's there anyway. Paper mills bleach everything from napkins to disposable diapers, and as they do, they spew out dioxins.
But the corporate giants that make your tampons want you to know that their bleaching process is safe. I called the manufacturer of Tampax tampons, Procter and Gamble -- which also makes virtually every other paper product on your supermarket shelf.
"The bleaching process that we use does not create dioxins," says P&G company spokeswoman Elaine Plummer. And to prove it, Elaine got P&G's senior scientist, Jay Gooch, on the phone. Jay explained that Procter & Gamble uses a special bleaching process called "elemental chlorine free."
He then very kindly offered to send me a scientific study that explained how safe this particular bleaching process was. After reading the study, it did seem safe to me. But I'm not a scientist, so I called up Dr. Philip Tierno, a microbiologist from New York University's Medical Center. Dr. Phil has been doing independent research on tampons for twenty years.
"Dioxin is the most potent toxin known to man," Dr. Phil told me somberly. "One millionth of a gram can kill a guinea pig." Dr. Phil has used that guinea pig statistic in several news articles before, and each time I read it, I'm convinced that guinea pigs should not use tampons.
But even if they did, Dr. Phil agrees that they would probably be OK. Since the manufacturers responded to public concern and changed their bleaching process a few years ago, he says, "The issue has become moot."
Does that let the Evil Corporate Empire off the hook? Not exactly. Instead of dioxins, Dr. Phil's worried about the synthetic fibers in our tampons. Most tampons are composed of viscose rayon, which is more absorbent than cotton. Dr. Phil pointed out that viscose rayon can be a breeding ground for the staph germ that causes toxic shock syndrome (TSS).
As a matter of fact, I asked Jay and Elaine about this, since it's an allegation that's also being spread on the Internet. In answer, I got another packet of studies explaining that rayon was similar to cotton and that neither fiber encouraged the staph germs to grow.
But in looking over these studies, I noticed that some of them were funded by the sanitary protection industry -- in other words, the scientists researching whether or not tampons are safe are getting their paychecks from the people who make and sell tampons.
This is something Dr. Phil and the Internet activists jump all over. How can a test be considered valid if the industry itself is paying for the results? Won't the researchers just tell them what they want to hear?
Jay and Elaine take that question almost personally. "In our society, there are a lot of cynical points of view," Jay says. "Just because the industry asked scientists to do research that somehow means the researcher is -- to put it bluntly -- faking data?"
Besides, Elaine points out, the Food and Drug Administration regulates the industry and monitors the testing. So it's not like there isn't independent government oversight, right?
The "Incompetent Government Officials"
One thing you need to understand about the FDA -- and this applies to all products, not just tampons -- is that the FDA rarely tests anything on its own. Instead, it relies on manufacturers to test their own products and then to submit the results to the agency for review.
So, just because the FDA report on tampons says "The available scientific evidence does not support the rumors [that tampons are dangerous]," how safe does that make you feel? I asked Dr. Phil what he thinks about this regulatory process, and he declined to comment because "if you can't say anything niceÉ"
Dr. Phil is an independent researcher, meaning he turned down the grant that Procter and Gamble offered him, so that he could do his own research. He tested different synthetic tampons for the bacteria that cause TSS.
"All the brands that used viscose rayon produced the toxin at different levels," he says. But, of the eight all-cotton brands he tested, including Tampax's own Naturals brand, none of the tampons produced the toxin.
Wait a second. Tampax, which spent an hour on the phone trying to convince me that synthetic fibers are not any different from cotton fibers, also manufactures a 100 percent all-cotton tampon?
"We're thinking of phasing it out," Elaine tells me. Procter and Gamble bought the Tampax product line from another company, Tambrands, back in 1997. And when they did, the all-cotton tampon was part of the package. But, Elaine says, it's not selling very well.
Maybe that's because it's hard to find. I live in San Francisco and I went to the drug store and to the grocery store in my neighborhood. Both are part of national chains, and neither one carried the Naturals brand. If you want to find an all-cotton tampon, which Dr. Phil says you should, you need to go to an organic health foods store or shop online.
The "Internet Conspiracists"
A week ago, I typed in "tampon safety" on an Internet search engine and received back hundreds of webpages (see related links). Aside from the obvious ones, like the FDA's official statement on tampon safety and Procter and Gamble's Tampax FAQ page, I found a link to a 1995 Village Voice article by Karen Houppert. Karens story, "Pulling the Plug on the Sanitary Protection Industry" had me nearly convinced that the Evil Corporate Empire was, in fact, pretty evil.
Last year, Karen wrote a follow-up book, "The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo," which I haven't read, but which I bet would convince me the rest of the way. Karen does not trust the tampon industry, and since Karen spent a considerably longer time researching these issues than I did, I'm inclined to trust her.
"I think consumers need to be skeptical about the assurances they are getting from the industry," she says. "But because of the nature of this product, it's not something that is publicly discussed. People are not going to take to the streets and demand tampon safety."
They are, however, taking to the Internet. "Did you know that major brand tampons can be deadly?" asks the S.P.O.T. website.
"Tracy," who maintains the site, read Karen Houppert's article too. But unlike me, it spurred her to action. "We have been on a mission to inform as many women as possible about the dangers of synthetic tampons!"
Some of Tracy's information seems a little outdated. For example, she encourages you to write to Tambrands and demand a 100 percent all-cotton, non-chlorine bleached tampon. Tambrands, if you remember, was bought out by Procter and Gamble several years ago. And besides, back then it was already selling an all-cotton tampon.
I e-mailed Tracy asking her for an interview and she e-mailed back with her home phone number. Trusting soul. Unfortunately, we weren't able to talk before the deadline for this story. So I contented myself with trying to track down Bio Business International, a Canadian company that supplied Tracy with some of her information about deadly synthetic tampons and which, coincidentally, markets its own brand of all-natural tampons.
Bio Business apparently is no longer in business. Their phone line was disconnected, and their webpage taken down. Last year, Forbes magazine published an article accusing Bio Business of spreading false Internet rumors about the danger of synthetic tampons in an effort to promote their own products. I don't know if that's true, but when I called Elaine at Procter and Gamble about the e-mail rumors, the first question she asked me was, "Did you see the Forbes article?"
See? It's hard to know who to trust. Ultimately, the best idea is probably Rep. Carolyn Maloneys (D-N.Y.). Last year Maloney introduced a bill, "The Tampon Research and Safety Act," calling for government funding of independent researchers. She wants the National Institutes of Health, not the industry itself, to oversee medical testing of tampons. Unfortunately, this is the second time Maloney has introduced her bill. It keeps getting shuffled to subcommittees, where it dies without ever being debated.
Why won't Congress pass the Tampon Safety Act? Maloney told a Massachusetts newspaper that several congressmen would consider supporting the bill, if she removed the word "tampon" from its title.