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Making a case for sustainable feminine hygiene

Staff Writer

Published: Friday, October 7, 2011

Updated: Friday, October 7, 2011 00:10


I find it frightening how little people seem to know about what they purchase and consume on an everyday basis.And while it seems that we are constantly becoming more and more aware of what we put into our bodies, it has come to my attention that women, in particular are turning a blind eye to an entire and monumentally important issue. I'll give you a hint – it has nothing to do with what we eat. 

For the sake of transparency and respect for your time I'll just come straight out and tell you: It's time you learn the truth about conventional feminine hygiene products and the how they affect personal health, finances, and the environment.

I used to use them. I never really thought about it. Month after month, I'd purchase, use, and throw away countless numbers of pads and tampons.

Then I started to think about all the plastic. I was wasting so much plastic! Throwing away so many applicators and wrappers – I thought I was being savvy when I opted for O.B. tampons, I figured I could do without the applicator and spare the earth some individual packaging, but I continued to toss the cotton, day after day.

Then I read in Sophie Uliano's book, Gorgeously Green, that there was a chemical in tampons that actually induces bleeding, forcing the consumer to buy more tampons, which allows companies make more money!

After I read that, I blindly opted for organic tampons and started to tell other women about it, including my roommate, who was skeptical. So I did my research and found out that the chemicals that promote bleeding are called asbestos. According to the Food and Drug Administration, the rumor is false and the FDA denies that asbestos have ever been an approved additive in tampons.

To make matters worse, tampons are usually made of blends of cotton and rayon for absorbency. Rayon is a cellulose fiber made from wood pulp. During their bleaching process, a toxic byproduct known as dioxin is created. Although the dioxin is present in small amounts, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), dioxin was once considered one of the world's most dangerous chemicals.

According to the EPA, there really is no "acceptable" level of exposure to dioxin given that it is cumulative and slow to disintegrate. The real danger lies in repeated contact – I would consider using about 4-5 tampons a day, 5-7 days a month, for about 40 years to be repeated contact.

The EPA also has determined that people exposed to high levels of dioxins may be at risk for a damaged immune system, increased risk of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), and reduced fertility. Recent research on monkeys has linked dioxin exposure with an increased risk to develop endometriosis, a painful disease in which uterine tissue is found outside the uterus, leading to infertility. 

When questions about dioxin came up a few years ago, the FDA asked tampon manufacturers to provide information about their pulp purification processes and the potential for dioxin contamination. Manufacturers of rayon tampons are also asked to routinely monitor dioxin levels in the raw material used or the finished tampons. Manufacturers have provided the FDA with test results of studies conducted at independent laboratories. This means that the agency's reassurances are largely based upon data that was submitted by tampon manufacturers, but are not publicly available. 

According to the results of studies conducted by tampon manufacturers submitted to the FDA, dioxin levels in the rayon raw materials range from undetectable to 3 trillion in one area. A study sponsored by the FDA Office of Women's Health was published in 2005 which found "detectable levels of dioxin in seven brands of tampons," including at least one 100 percent cotton brand. 

I was clueless about all of the above until I was practically forced to stop using tampons while I was abroad in India. A few weeks abroad had passed and I had my organic, non-applicator tampons ready when my professor, Bindu, whom I was living with at the time, approached me matter-of-factly and said, "Julia, about your period, after you get it, you will have to just burn your products."

India currently does not have any other way of dealing with sanitary waste. Women in the rural villages reuse cloths and disposable sanitary waste is gathered and burned. I thought about the idea of collecting my own waste and then saving it to burn at the end of my cycle, but the idea repulsed me. 

Later, when I thought more about it, I didn't think it was more gross (or fair) to throw my pads and tampons in the trash and then let my unnecessary waste rot in a landfill for years,where dioxin and rayon can leach into the environment (groundwater, streams and lakes) causing serious pollution and health concerns. Either that, or leave it for someone else to burn, allowing all of those chemicals to be released into the air for everyone else to breathe.

But then Bindu gave me another option. She offered me the opportunity to purchase a Moon Cup, which is a specific brand of reusable menstrual cups and keepers. You can also buy Diva Cups or The Keeper, which have different names, but offer the same basic benefits; you don't waste your money buying disposable pads and tampons each month, you don't perpetually pollute the land and sea, and you don't compromise your own personal health by literally inserting horrible synthetic chemicals into yourself month after month.

I was nauseated when I calculated the amount of money I'd thrown away over the past few years, but glad I learned my lesson at 20 years old. According to the Diva Cup website, most women spend $150-200 a year on disposable tampons and pads. Multiply that by about forty years and you can estimate that your period will cost you about $8,000 in a lifetime. My Moon Cup cost me about $40, and will last for about ten years. So let me summarize for you, a Moon Cup or Keeper costs $40 for 10 years, and disposable pads and tampons cost $2,000 for 10 years. The numbers speak for themselves.

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Fri Oct 7 2011 15:36
I strongly suggest reading "The Curse : confronting the last unmentionable taboo: menstruation" by Karen Houppert. I'm not sure where you got your information about dioxin, but there is a lot more out there about it and what you have in the article isn't all correct, nor is it the complete story....

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