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.
Last month women across the country dreamed of the perfect Valentine's Day gift -- a diamond ring. After all, what better way is there to make two months' salary last forever?So asks the omnipresent ads of the world's largest diamond company, De Beers. A worldwide cartel based in South Africa that controls approximately 70 percent of the diamond trade, De Beers has been touting its diamonds in the United States for 30 years. This year the company hawked "millennium" diamonds and launched an interactive website where users can design their own engagement ring.For a company whose directors can't even set foot in the United States without fear of being prosecuted for being a monopoly, De Beers sure spends a lot of money here -- $60 million on Valentine's Day advertising alone, according to The New York Times.Why? It doesn't need to sell the brand -- it already controls the market. And it's not like consumers can flock to a De Beers store -- the company mines diamonds in Africa for sale to jewelry retailers throughout the world. And De Beers, which stopped doing business in the United States in 1945 when the Justice Department initiated anti-trust proceedings against it, can't sell diamonds here directly. It has to sell them to dealers in London, who turn around and sell them to the United States. So why swamp the states with so much pro-diamond advertising in the weeks before Valentine's Day?"Why do you think?" asks De Beers spokesman Andrew Lamont. "Advertising helps to sell diamonds." De Beers, a publicly traded company, has been run by the Oppenheimer family since 1902 -- and before that by Cecil Rhodes, a British imperialist who made a fortune consolidating diamond mines.But Lamont adds that by operating mines in Africa, De Beers helps transfer funds from first-world customers to underdeveloped countries desperate to get a piece of the global economy. "De Beers sees itself as something akin to Robin Hood. We persuade those people who can afford luxury goods to purchase those goods to help build schools in Africa."Smuggled DiamondsBut diamonds can also help build an army -- and that's just what this luxury good has been doing for the past 10 years. Rebel armies in Angola, the Congo, and Sierra Leone wage brutal civil wars funded by an extensive, smuggled diamond trade. The rebels take control of a diamond mine, falsify a few documents, and then sell the diamonds in the international markets in Antwerp and Tel Aviv. And guess who's there to buy up the majority of these smuggled diamonds? According to several sources, it's De Beers.De Beers does mine some of it's own diamonds, but it also routinely buys up all available diamonds on the market in an attempt to control the price of the gems. Human Rights Watch reported that in 1996 the Angola rebels received $760 million from the sale of their stolen gems -- the majority sold to De Beers. Rebels in Sierra Leone used their diamond money, funneled through dealers in Liberia, to build an army that started with just 400 volunteers, into a fighting force with more than 20,000 paid soldiers.And those soldiers are not lightly armed, either. In Sierra Leone, rebels use machetes to hack off the hands and feet of civilians who attempt to vote in democratic elections. And Angola, despite having signed the international Mine Ban Treaty in 1997, is contaminated from its 25-year civil war -- during which many of the country's six million land mines were placed around diamond fields by rebels anxious to protect their funding source."The human cost for this trade is simply unacceptable," says Alex Yearsley of Global Witness, a British-based coalition of human rights groups that published a report on the illicit diamond trade in 1998. "When peace initiatives consistently fail due to rebel factions being heavily armed with sophisticated weaponry, and those weapons have been paid for by diamonds which end up as jewelry in the international markets, it's evident that there are some problems to address."The United Nations attempted to address the Angola problem in July of 1998, when it placed an embargo on all diamonds sold by Angola's rebel army, UNITA. Under the conditions of the embargo, the Angolan government could continue to sell diamonds from its own mines, as long as it provided certificates of origin for each gem. The sanctions on UNITA's diamond mines, however, proved difficult to enforce. The rebel army simply falsified the required certificates of origin.De Beers admitted to the U.N. in 1999 that it may have unknowingly bought diamonds from UNITA. Last October, the company announced that it would no longer purchase any diamonds from Angola."We were concerned that loopholes in the sanctions were being exploited," Lamont says. "We wanted to be able to put our hands on our hearts and reassure our customers that our diamonds were not coming from areas where the rebels would profit from them."But some people question De Beers' sincerity."They're making a lot of noises as if they are responding," says Deborah DeYoung, an aide to Rep. Tony Hall (D-OH). DeYoung points out that De Beers didn't stop purchasing diamonds from UNITA until the U.N. imposed the sanctions in 1998, several years after it became apparent that rebels in African countries were profiting from the diamond trade.Now Rep. Hall is asking the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on Sierra Leone and the Congo, similar to those placed on Angola. Although De Beers says it does not have purchasing offices in either Liberia or Sierra Leone, it does buy diamonds in the international markets of Antwerp. And Sierra Leone's rebels have been smuggling diamonds through Liberia, apparently selling them in Antwerp: Antwerp's Diamond High Council, an industry group that doubles as a regulatory body for the Belgium diamond trade, reported that its traders were importing 30 million carats of diamonds from Liberia -- although the country's diamond mines could produce only 2 percent of that amount. The other 98 percent had to come from somewhere."Officials in Antwerp have known about this for nearly a decade and have done absolutely nothing," Yearsley says. "In fact, they regarded it as something of a joke."But with the United States suddenly taking an interest in the issue of smuggled diamonds, no one's laughing anymore. Especially De Beers, which itself has an interest in American consumers, who buy at least half of all commercial diamonds worldwide.We'd Love To Help, But ...Before the U.N. sanctions against Angola, De Beers was not interested in stopping smuggling, Yearsley says. In fact, the company "actively talked about their ability to purchase on the open market the unofficial Angolan production," he says. What changed their minds this year? "They are very keen to cooperate so that they can get back into the States," Yearsley claims.De Beers officials cooperated last December by meeting with Rep. Hall to discuss how the proposed sanctions against Sierra Leone could be more effective than the ones passed on Angola. But the real opportunity for the company came when De Beers was approached by the U.S. State Department, seeking its cooperation to help end the smuggled diamond trade. The company agreed to the meeting because, Lamont says, "if America is looking for solutions for Africa, then we are prepared to talk with them."But after meeting with the State Department officials and with Rep. Hall, De Beers did something it has never done in the 50 years since it first left the Unite States under threat of anti-trust prosecution: It asked for a meeting with the U.S. Justice Department.The Justice Department has been interested in De Beers off and on since it started the anti-trust investigation more than 50 years ago. De Beers has not operated in the United States since then, and the Justice Department indicted the company in 1994 on charges of price fixing. The Justice Department accused the company of conspiring with its competitor, General Electric, to raise prices on industrial diamonds. De Beers refused to come to the United States to answer the charges. So while GE was eventually acquitted, the indictment against De Beers still stands.Now, critics say, De Beers appears to be trying to use the promise of its cooperation in the smuggling situation in Africa as leverage to get the indictment lifted and to permit the company to return to the United States."The industry could do a lot more [to stop the smuggling]," DeYoung says. "They just want to get something for it first." When Rep. Hall met with De Beers officials in December, DeYoung says, the State Department asked him not to use the indictment as a bargaining chip to gain the company's cooperation."I'm sure it would be natural for De Beers to link their cooperation with a desire to resolve the anti-trust issue," says a former state department official, who asked not to be named. "But these are really two separate issues. It's not our responsibility to get in the middle of an anti-trust suit."De Beers claims there was no connection between its meeting with the State Department officials and its overtures to the Justice Department. "We just thought it would be useful to look at some of the constraints put upon us," Lamont says.The Justice Department eventually turned down the request for the meeting, and officials there refused to comment on the De Beers case.A Diamond Boycott?DeYoung says De Beers should forget about what it can gain from the State Department and concentrate instead on what it has to save. If the diamond industry doesn't act fast to address the problem, "it's going to be a fertile ground for a consumer boycott," she says. "If they don't want diamonds to go the way of fur -- to become a symbol of butchery -- then they need to do something."But advocates around the world freeze up at the mention of a consumer boycott on diamonds."A general boycott of diamonds is an absolute no-no," Yearsley says. The majority of diamonds come from legitimate mines in southern Africa, he says, and those governments rely heavily on the diamond trade for a stable economy. De Beers' Lamont puts it a bit more dramatically."Talk like that is literally putting people's lives at risk," he says. He points out that Botswana was one of the poorest countries in the world when De Beers opened a mine there in the 1960s. Now the country is one of the richest in Africa. "Put yourself in the position of a child in Botswana. You start turning people off diamonds and what will you put in place of that resource?"Besides, Lamont says, consumers have "only a 1 in one hundred chance" of buying a diamond that was sold by Angola rebels -- not a big enough reason to be concerned. "The extraordinary thing is that the world is preoccupied with the diamond industry," he says. "Wouldn't it be easier to stop the export of a tank into Angola instead?"Vikki Kratz is a freelance writer and the former research editor for Mother Jones. This story originally appeared in Shewire, at www.shewire.com.