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The Period Predicament -Part 1
The Period Predicament
Weighing all the costs of menstrual products
by Susan Crawford Beil
One Woman’s Perspective
When I was 14 and my feminine hygiene products just “magically” appeared in the bathroom cupboard, I didn’t pay much attention to how much they cost, how they were made, or what health risks they posed to me and my environment. I was just glad they were there and hoped no one noticed I was wearing them. As I’ve grown up and have had to pay for my own menstrual products, and have become more conscious of my own and my planet’s health, I’ve given the matter more thought. When I turned 30, I was no longer able to wear tampons because of severe vaginal irritation, and I began to wonder about the safety of tampons altogether. When I turned 31 and had my first child, I was confronted with the health and economic costs of disposable diapers, which led me to further question the health and economic cost of my own disposable menstrual products. When my period returned, I actually tried using my contoured cloth diapers (thin, pear-shaped, with a doubler sewn into the middle) for pads and discovered that I loved them! The cotton felt so much better against my skin and I didn’t get that “clammy” pad feeling I had grown accustomed to with my disposable pads. As for washing, I just threw them in the diaper pail and washed them up with the diapers. And what a joy not to be buying pads every month!
While I admit I still use these “diapers,” I have also invested in some fabulous washable menstrual pads that are smaller, attach to my underwear, and are lovely next to my skin. It took me a while to finally say goodbye to disposable menstrual products, but I am so thankful I did! I feel healthier and I feel like I’m a much better steward of my planet and my resources by using cloth, washable pads.
In my research sparked by my own personal journey, I have discovered many troubling things about the pads and tampons found at the grocery store and so readily consumed by the menstruating women of our day. Wherever you are in your path of finding the right menstrual care, we at Fresh-Moon hope the following discussion proves helpful and informative. In much the same way as we discuss The Diaper Dilemma, we have outlined the following “costs” involved in choosing and using menstrual products.
The Environmental Cost of Menstrual Pads and Tampons
Most feminine hygiene products manufactured in North America contain two absorbent ingredients: rayon and cotton. Rayon, the more absorbent of the two, is made using chlorine gas or chlorine dioxide bleached wood pulp. This bleaching process gives us bright, white fibers, to the detriment of nearby waterways that are heavily polluted with organochlorines – such as dioxins and furans, which are the most toxic, carcinogenic chemicals on earth. Trace amounts of dioxins and furans have been detected in such paper products as facial tissue, coffee filters, diapers, and feminine hygiene products. Studies to determine the health impacts of these toxins in our products – especially the ones we wear next to our most delicate parts - have been slow and almost non-existent. Manufacturers hold a heavy hand against legislature, it seems, and somehow what we would see as necessary testing keeps not happening.
Cotton, the other ingredient in pads and tampons, is by no means an environmental joy. No less than 170 insecticides are registered for use on cotton crops, and the bleaching process for cotton involves formaldehyde, which has its own share of unpleasant effects on the planet.
Menstrual pads also contain various plastics in their layers – on the bottom to prevent clothing from stains and on the top to produce that “breathable” mesh layer. In addition, both pads and tampons are packaged using a variety of plastics – especially now with nearly every pad and tampon individually wrapped to keep them “sanitary” and discreet.
Disposable, organic, unbleached, rayon-free tampons and chemical-free pads have become available in recent years, and we applaud this addition to the market. If you decide to choose disposable menstrual products for full-time or occasional use, we recommend you consider these more environmentally responsible options.
While the production of today’s menstrual products has a slew of environmental costs, the disposal of these “unmentionables” has another set of problems altogether.
Did you know that a woman throws away roughly 10,000-20,000 pads, tampons, and pantiliners in her lifetime? That adds up to over 12 billion sanitary products in landfills or incinerators in the US each year. While the cotton and rayon ingredients eventually biodegrade, the plastics in the pads and in the packaging sit in landfills for centuries, and when burned in incinerators, add toxins to our air.
Now, we could almost stop there if all feminine hygiene products got thrown in the trash, as they are supposed to. Yet, we all know that’s not the case, don’t we? The toilet’s right under us: why not flush it, right? The instructions on many tampon boxes even tell you it’s okay. I’ll never forget my senior year of college when the “roto-rooter” guy came to clear the clogged plumbing in the house I shared with three other women. He told us he found a whole slew of “white mice” in the pipes and gave us all the message to stop flushing tampons! He also told us that that was one of his most common enemies – white mice! Yuck! So, the environmental impact of menstrual products often starts with trouble for your own home!
What about the feminine products that make it out of our household plumbing and into the local sewage systems? On a good day, tampons, pads, applicators (plastic and cardboard alike) and the other interesting things that people flush, make it to water treatment facilities. There, they get caught in special screens, gathered together, and shipped to a landfill. But it is very common for these “extras” to get past the screens and clog pumping machines and create disasters in the sewage digesters. So don’t flush your pads, applicators, or tampons, no matter what the packaging tells you!
While most US cities have sewage treatment plants, they are usually very old, and heavy storms can often overload the plants, causing floods of raw sewage to pour directly into nearby rivers and, for coastal cities, the ocean. In Canada, domestic laws have been passed and international conventions signed to prohibit marine pollution, yet sewage treatment systems in several port cities continue to release massive amounts of raw sewage and toxic substances in the marine environment on a daily basis. Not only is that just plain gross to think about, but when it comes to feminine hygiene products, all those charming tampons, applicators, and (yes!) pads make their way into our rivers and oceans. Tampons are thought to sink and eventually biodegrade, but pads seem to float (so the fishermen report), and that smooth gliding plastic pink applicator has become the death of many a fish and the décor of many a sandy beach. I love (hate?) this story from Liz Armstrong’s book, Whitewash:
Cape Cod artist Jay Critchley collects these applicators by the bushel and turns them into highly visible “art” to prod the public into conscience. His most pointed message was an applicator sculpture named “Miss Tampon Liberty,” a human-sized replica of America’s revered national symbol. Critchley’s statue was fashioned entirely from three thousand plastic “beach whistles.”
When pushed to discontinue production of their plastic applicators, Playtex Family Products argued that women want their choice in the matter, and so the company talked about making a plastic applicator that would sink instead of float (great solution!?).
Re-usable, washable menstrual pads
At Fresh Moon, we are proud to offer Fresh Moon Cloth Menstrual Pads made by a WAHM (Work at home mom). Made from either hemp/cotton, organic cotton velour or bamboo velour, all unbleached natural fibers, combined with moisture resistant wool or polyester fleece you have a very reliable, reusable system. In the event that you should ever dispose of a cotton, hemp, or wool pad, it would decompose in a landfill within months. The fleece components in some of the washable pads would take longer to decompose, but it is made from recycled bottles, and so it is a responsibly manufactured product. Keeping your pads clean takes only a small amount of water (one load of wash per month), and when you choose an environmentally friendly detergent (free of phosphates and chlorine), you can rest assured that your re-usable pads are a very healthy choice for our planet.
Disposable menstrual products pose a tremendous threat to the health of our environment in both their production and disposal. But what about the cost to our own health, we the women who wear these products next to our most precious parts?
Not a single health care provider that I’ve asked in the past five years has been able to explain why my vagina suddenly became so sensitive to tampons after 15 years of trouble-free use. All I know is that I have battled dryness and chronic vaginitis. Even when my infections clear, tampons still irritate. As I’ve done my research on menstrual products, I have not been surprised to discover that vaginal dryness and chronic vaginitis have been linked to tampon use., The whole goal of menstrual flow is to rid the body of fluids and waste products from the uterus. To interrupt the release of these fluids by absorbing them and keeping them in our bodies longer than they want makes for an unhealthy balance and it’s no wonder infection and dryness often results.
In addition, other tampon-related troubles have been documented, from metal fragments found in tampons, to tampons falling apart and shredding in the vagina, as well as abdominal cramping and urinary tract infections. Plastic applicators, said to be the “smoother,” more comfortable choice, have sharp edges known to lacerate the walls of the vagina during insertion. Cell peeling and tiny ulcers within the vagina have also been associated with tampon use.
It almost goes without saying that deodorants added to pads and tampons also cause trouble. Perfumes are chemicals – chemicals that are often irritants, especially when inserted into your body, or when worn next to your delicates for hours at a time. These fragrances were simply a marketing gimmick – create a need, and then fill it: tell women they smell badly and then provide a perfume to cover it up. In reality, the chemicals used in these perfumes often cause allergic reactions, rashes, and can even result in a microbial imbalance, which can cause further infection troubles. Tampons do not have an odor until exposed to the air anyway, so sticking perfume inside your body is absolutely pointless – and quite unhealthy. And, by the way, if you do happen to have a strong odor you don’t want others to detect, you probably have an infection that should be treated, not covered up with perfumes.
It might be nice to discover what is in a tampon or pad that would cause you irritation so that you could avoid it – but manufacturers of menstrual products are not required by law, in either the US or Canada, to list all the ingredients in their products. Some companies may voluntarily list a few ingredients, but nobody lists them all – and many don’t list any. Which causes us to wonder: why wouldn’t they tell us – is there something they don’t want us to know about? So our tampon boxes can legally keep the ingredients secret meanwhile, we’re inserting their contents into our reproductive parts! These known and unknown chemicals are not only affecting our vagina, cervix and uterus but our entire body. The tissues with which our pads and tampons are in close contact with are highly permeable: whatever unknown chemicals that happen to be in these menstrual products are being absorbed into the blood system and distributed throughout our the entire body!
Toxic Shock Syndrome
One thing tampon boxes are good at, however, is warning us that using their contents can put us at risk for a most horrible disease known as Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). I remember reading these warnings as a teenager and not feeling terribly worried. I mean, fever, rash – I’ve had those before and have been fine. Possible death – they can’t be serious!? Well, when I read Liz Armstrong’s Whitewash and came across some of the stories of women who either died or were severely injured by this disease, I was in my own state of shock. Consider this account:
In June, 1989, seventeen-year-old Alice Corman-Dunn of Sarnia, Ontario, was rushed to hospital severely ill with a high fever, vomiting and diarrhea. She died the following day after suffering cardiac arrest and lapsing into a coma. Doctors testifying at the coroner’s inquest. . . said that the cause of [her] death was a bacterial infection that led to an acute inflammation of her internal organs. They further stated that Corman-Dunn died of menstrually related toxic shock syndrome.
In another case, Debra Johnson of Indianola, Iowa, survived her bout with TSS, but just barely - and not without suffering its lasting, debilitating effects. In May of 1991 (after most people thought TSS a thing of the past), Debra’s husband found her comatose, burning with fever, her face severely swollen. In the course of her and her doctors’ battle against the TSS, Debra lost nearly 50 percent of her skin – mostly on her legs and chest – from the rash that literally burned her body. Her kidneys failed, her toes and several fingers were amputated, her hair fell out and she lost her hearing. She now walks with the help of a cane, but has never regained her hearing.
Scientists do not fully understand TSS and its apparent association with tampon use. But, briefly, this is what they do know. Our bodies host a certain bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus, commonly found in the nose, skin, and vagina. In certain situations, these bacteria produce a powerful toxin that, in small doses, your body can handle, and to which, as you get older, you develop an immunity. Well, enter the super absorbent tampons of the 1980’s – they absorbed so much menstrual blood they somehow made for a great place for the bacteria to colonize and multiply beyond normal levels. Oxygen, inserted with your tampon into a normally oxygen free place (your vagina), is known to stimulate the bacteria to produce their toxin. So, hundreds of women – especially young women, whose bodies had not developed a tolerance for the TSS toxin – used super absorbent tampons for extended periods of time and the toxins from the overabundant Staph aureus wreaked absolute, devastating havoc on their bodies. And it happened fast.
So, why was TSS such a problem in the 1980’s? Well, tampon manufacturers got all hot and bothered about making theirs the most absorbent product on the market. So they started adding synthetic fibers, such as polyester sponges and bits of carboxy-methyl-cellulose (the culprits in the infamous Rely tampons from Proctor and Gamble), or sodium polyacrylate (the stuff the little “beads” in today’s disposable diapers are made of). These added ingredients were tremendously effective at absorbing menstrual blood and preventing leaks. Problem was, they were too good at their job, and, as the sad stories of many women have told, their absorbent nature caused a microbial imbalance that took or severely altered the lives of thousands of women.
While these synthetic additives have been removed from tampons, TSS is still a threat to women, especially to those younger women who use the higher absorbency tampons. To minimize risk of contracting TSS, women are urged to choose the lowest absorbency level needed for their flow, to change their tampons every 2-4 hours, and never to sleep with a tampon in overnight. Extended, uninterrupted use of highly absorbent tampons puts a woman at increased risk of developing TSS.
So, from vaginal dryness and vaginitis to Toxic Shock Syndrome, tampons pose a variety of threats to our health. But what about pads? A little tougher on the environment, but what about on our health as women? Clearly, a pad is not as threatening as a tampon, since it remains external to your body. But, the plastics, bleached wood pulp and who-knows-what-else used in making a sanitary napkin are still mighty close to your inner workings.
In an unscientific survey, we moms at Fresh Moon have noticed that the cramps, headaches, and fatigue we thought were normal parts of having a period virtually disappeared when we switched from disposable pads to cotton, re-usable pads. It could be the excitement we found at the cool colors and fun fabrics in these products. But we’re thinking it’s more likely because we’ve stopped exposing our parts and pieces to the unknown battery of chemicals and products in the Always, Kotex, and Stayfrees that we depended upon for so long.
Re-usable, washable menstrual pads
The natural fibers used in our Fresh Moon Cloth Menstrual Pads are incredibly absorbent and breathable at the same time. They are free of fragrances, bleaches and other toxic chemicals. Washable pads are incredibly comfortable next to your skin and help your body maintain its natural balance.
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