How much is what you don’t know about tampons hurting you?
The answer may be: More than you think.
Yes, it’s 2017, but we still live in a world that deems having a vagina a biological faux pas. From a young age, we are told that vaginas smell, that menstrual blood is gross and that the female body is not acceptable until it is appropriately plugged up, polished and perfumed.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of feminine hygiene products, whose sole mission is to help women approach the advertised image of femininity: naked, odorless and ashamed.
Yet while people with vaginas are asked to hide their basic bodily functions from the world — what is being hidden from them?
In the interest of masking the functions of the female body — with lotions, washes, douches and even pads and tampons — users of these products put their health at risk, predisposing themselves to everything from yeast infections to bacterial vaginosis and Toxic Shock Syndrome. But this isn’t all. Receiving far less publicity is the fact that exposure to environmental toxins also adds to these risks.
Despite the seeming sensitivity of the issue, there is little data on toxins in feminine hygiene products — the first publicly available data in North America about pesticide residues in tampons are from 2013. But what we’re starting to suspect is that feminine hygiene products contain a veritable stew of endocrine disruptors, parabens, dioxins and more — chemicals that are either directly poisonous or disrupt the body’s hormonal balance. Data from a 2013 study, cited in a report by Women’s Voices from the Earth, showed tampons tested positive for residues from eight different pesticides, many of which are either probable or possible carcinogens.
But the toxic chemicals found in feminine hygiene products don’t seem to be a pressing policy concern. The Food and Drug Administration describes the risk of adverse effects from dioxins in tampons as “negligible,” and merely “recommend” that tampons be free of pesticide residue.
In that case, policymakers underestimate vaginas. The “safe” levels determined by the FDA arguably do not account for the highly absorbent and vascular nature of vaginal tissues. Even things like vaginal washes, which are often labeled “for external use only,” make their way inside. The mucous membranes that make the vagina self-cleaning mean that, if we’re talking about vaginas, there is no such thing as external exposure.
What’s more, the vagina has such high blood flow that methods have been suggested to deliver drugs through vaginal absorption, which studies have shown to lead to drug blood contents 10 times higher than those from oral dosing.
The FDA also does not account for repeated exposure. People who menstruate, based on national age of menarche and menopause, may use tampons at least from age 12 until age 52 — which means nearly half a century of monthly exposure and up to 16,000 tampons in one person’s life.
Even “trace amounts” of toxins don’t seem so significant after that.
Given the intimate exposure pathway represented by products that come in contact with the vagina, it is clear that research on the potential health effects of carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting chemicals in feminine hygiene products is insufficient. The innate sexism and male-body-normative assumptions of our society mean that female-body issues are given not only less attention, but also fewer resources. What’s more, control and power over female bodies is continuously taken away from female-identified persons. Let’s talk about the fact that three out of four inventors behind the 200 tampon-related patents since 1976 are men. I mean, seriously?
And the FDA isn’t the only one turning a blind eye. U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s Robin Danielson Feminine Hygiene Product Safety Act suggested that the National Institutes of Health research the health risks posed by feminine hygiene products that contain these chemicals, but the bill has been held up in Congress since 2015. Meanwhile, FDA spokesperson Morgan Liscinsky says she is unaware of any well-conducted peer-reviewed research on absorption of pesticides from tampons.
No news is good news, right?
This isn’t fair. Menstruation is a physically, psychologically and socially taxing affair — making it the basis of a booming market in reducing embarrassment. In fact, to reduce the out-of-pocket burden, people who menstruate are beginning to demand free access to menstrual products such as tampons — even through movements at our own UC Berkeley. And now, after all this struggle, you’re telling us … you don’t even know if these products are safe?
Our reproductive rights should include the right to know what is in the products we place in and around the most vulnerable parts of our bodies, and whether those chemicals have the capacity to harm us. It is wrong for the NIH not to conduct research on the toxicology of intimate and everyday products. It is wrong for the FDA not to label their products with what they contain. It is wrong that this research is not available for personal health decisions and policymaking, and it is wrong that female bodies, in terms of research attention, are still second class.
As informed citizens in a chemical world, we must counter the shame-based and sexist culture around female body functions with an insistence on good health and sound science.
No news isn’t good news. Do better.
Nina Djukic is a campus student and was formerly an opinion columnist and Weekender contributor at The Daily Californian.