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Menstrual Products and Health

by Kirk and Stacey Johnson, reprinted with permission

Image: Lunette Menstrual Cup | Model 2 for Medium to Heavy Menstruation | Natural Alternative for Tampons and Sanitary Napkins

Lunette Menstrual Cup
Natural Alternative for Tampons and Sanitary Napkins

Click for more info: US | CA | UK

Breast cancer, elevated estrogen levels, other illness may be linked to some feminine sanitary products.

As a standard process, nearly all disposable pads and tampons are manufactured using chlorine to either whiten or break down the wood fibres involved. The use of chlorine in this process produces unwanted by-products - organochlorines - which contaminate both the waste-water from manufacturing and the actual pads and tampons that are produced. Despite substantial scientific proof that organochlorines (dioxins among others) are some of the most toxic substances known, the pads and tampons are left unrinsed of these and other toxic residues, individually packaged and sold to women through-out the world.

One might expect the above scenario to be representative of a miniscule percentage - only rare defects - within a vast industry, but, rather, it is indicative of the vast majority of absorbent menstrual products produced in North America, and the same is true for many other common paper products. We know about paying the price for these liberating disposable products in the form of garbage in landfills (an estimated 12 billion pads per year), but is there a health threat - much more serious - than we may know or have been told about?

Inside Organochlorines

Organochlorines are produced whenever an organic material (wood fibres, fossil fuels) is combined with chlorine gas, also known as elemental chlorine. Chlorine gas has been commonly used through-out industry during most of this century. One of its most popular tasks is to help wood pulp become transformed into bright white paper products and others that contain rayon. Plastics and petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides are also made with the use of chlorine. Chlorine gas was also used to make Agent Orange, the organochlorine -turned-chemical-weapon used by the U.S. military against Viet Nam.

Organochlorines are some of the most toxic substances known to man, proven to cause immune system defects, birth defects, cancers, neurological impairment, and a host of other complications, including ozone depletion. One drop of dioxin (one type of organochlorine) added to an Olympic-sized pool would prevent the hatching of trout eggs.

As an unwanted and unnaturally occurring by-product of industry, organochlorines are hugely foreign to our earthly biosphere, thus there is no natural way for counteracting them. Not unlike nuclear waste, organochlorines persist in the environment and highly resist breakdown, therefore accumulating in the environment. They also seem to accumulate particularly in the fatty tissues of the humans and animals, consequently gathering in mammary glands and reproductive organs. Because of this, organochlorines are suspected to be linked to breast cancer and endometriosis, as well as other related diseases.

Image: The Sanitary Protection Scandal, by Alison, Bernadette Valleley, Josa Young Costello (Author). Publisher: Women's Environmental Network (1989)

The Sanitary Protection Scandal
Click for more info: US | CA | UK

A Grand Misconception

Many major studies regarding organochlorines, and their ill-effects on living tissues, have been conducted by both universities and public scientific/activist groups over the last two decades. While the general scientific community urges concern over the negative long-term effects of organochlorines, certain government agencies charged with oversight will not consider what long-time exposure to small doses does to humans and animals. Some agencies also seem to favour information and studies that are produced by big industry (all information provided for the FDA's 1990 study was supplied by tampon makers!). To make matters worse, the very powerful and influential FDA reports its findings to Congress, which must then shape our laws and policies.

Another complicating factor in the lack of attention that organochlorines receive is due to a general unwillingness to consider long-term effects. The U.S. Government has regulated or banned several types of concentrated organochlorines - Agent Orange, PCB's, DDT, chlordane and chloroflourocarbons (CFC's) - but only because these organochlorines evidenced immediate short-term damage to humans and the environment. The government oversight agencies now consider there to be an acceptable level of exposure to organochlorines, but the scientific community has not yet found any safe level of exposure, nor has it recommended one.

There are over 11,000 different organochlorines in use in commerce today. These products are customers to over 60 chlorine production plants in North America alone, so the combined industry dependent on the production of chlorine is huge (40 million tons of annual world-wide chlorine production). But even though chlorine is a big part of industry, for virtually all known uses of chlorine and organochlorines, effective alternatives are available.

Image: Whitewash: Exposing the Health and Environmental Dangers of Women's Sanitary Products and Disposable Diapers : What You Can Do About It, by Liz Armstrong (Author), Adrienne Scott (Author). Publisher: Harpercollins (May 1993)

Whitewash
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Common sense is also a good tool in assessing the threat of organochlorines. One peculiar aspect about organochlorines is that they have a tendency to mimic sex hormones, particularly estrogen. Epidemiological and experimental data support a relationship between sex hormones - especially elevated levels of estrogen - and increased breast cancer risk; these types of breast cancer rising most rapidly are those that respond to estrogen. Another connection could be that since the 1930s and 40s, when chlorine production became a prominent world-wide event, breast cancer rates have steadily increased to the epidemic proportions they are today. Because long-term health threats are so hard to prove unquestionably through short-term scientific experiments, U.S. Government agencies have a tendency to ignore subjects like this completely.

Risks and Disposable Menstrual Products

Beside containing organochlorines, pads and tampons are also run through acid baths and caustic sodas during manufacturing to enhance absorbency - but they are not rinsed after this process. Exposing them to water ruins their ability to absorb. They are packaged contaminated with residues from each part of their toxic creation, left for unaware consumers to expose to their bodies - a process hardly worth the term sanitary (tampon manufacturers actually bear a warning on their packaging that warns of the risk of death from the use of their tampons!). Many women report a reduced or ceased occurrence of vaginal and cervical diseases and irritations after quitting disposables.

The use of tampons, which over 50% of menstruating women choose, is, conceptually, very risky. The vagina is a delicate environment, requiring certain levels of moisture and acid/alkaline balances to stay healthy. Putting a foreign object, particularly an absorbent one, in this environment disrupts these balances, providing ample conditions for unwanted pathogens to multiply and cause complications. Also, tampons leave behind tiny bits of their absorbent material (cotton, rayon, etc.) in the vagina, which may lead to infections. Furthermore, the concept of plugging a woman's menstrual flow with a tampon doesn't allow a full and natural discharge of menstrual flow; this has a tendency to leave behind old fluids that may cause unnecessary infections, irritations and cramps.

What Are the Alternatives?

If you currently use tampons you may consider at least trying reusable cloth pads instead. They may not be as convenient to you, but what improvements they bring to your health may far outweigh the disadvantages. As with any new habit, our bodies need time to cleanse and adapt to the change; give your change time to show its results.

The best and most-risk-free alternative may be to switch to a re-usable, external pad made with natural absorbent fibres. Several styles and brands are now available in Natural and Health Food stores, and they usually offer more comfort and many of the same conveniences that disposable pads offer; they're becoming a popular and pleasing experience. But take the time to find the style that is best for you.

The bottom line: by not using disposables you can contribute far less to deforestation, toxic waste production, personal health risks, and the overwhelming problem of waste disposal.


RESOURCES:

Whitewash, by Liz Armstrong and Adriene Scott; Toronto; Harper Collins (1992)
Chlorine: The Product is the Poison, a Greenpeace report (1991); 4649 Sunnyside N., Seattle, WA 98103
Breast Cancer and the Environment: The Chlorine Connection, a Greenpeace report (1992).
The Truth About Tampons, by Hannah Holmes, Garbage Magazine, Nov/Dec, 1990.
The Sanitary Protection Scandal, by Alison Costello, Bernadette Valley, and Josa Young (1989)
With Strings Attached, by Marina Lindsey, Buzzworm Magazine, May/June, 1993.

Publish this article in your newsletter! You have permission from the authors to publish this article if: it is published in it's entirety or any editions are cleared by the authors. Editions will be respectfully considered. Per United States copyright law, please remember that any publication of more than a paragraph of another's copywork is unlawful if done without specific permission.

Kirk and Stacy Johnson are freelance writers who have specialized in research involving menstrual products and natural health options. You may contact them at 2429 236th Street S.W., Brier, WA 98036 (206)483-7186.


This article compliments of Born to Love.


More Menstrual Resources:

Online Resources
Books to Read
Charting Cycles
Articles
Discussion Lists
Make-Your-Own

Menstrual Articles

• Menstrual Products and Health
• Feminine Ecology Notes
• Women Taking the Initiative for a Safer Environment
• Fast Facts from Whitewash
• Backgrounder: What Are Organochlorines? And Why Are They So Dangerous?
• What Women Can Do to Stop the Whitewash
• More On-line Articles

 


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Last updated - November 27, 2016