Are Your Menstrual Products Poisoning You?

Legislation introduced this week would increase research and regulation of potentially harmful ingredients in feminine-hygiene products.

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 19: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals activist Jen Huls stands dressed as a tampon outside of Columbia University during a protest October 19, 2004 in New York. PETA staged a protest alleging that Columbia researchers are conducting cruel menstrual tests on primates and subjecting them to painful conditions. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
National Journal
Sophie Novack
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Sophie Novack
May 28, 2014, 2:22 p.m.

There may be even more reas­on for wo­men to dread that time of the month.

Fem­in­ine-hy­giene products like tam­pons and pads have been found to con­tain cer­tain in­gredi­ents that could be harm­ful to wo­men’s health, but con­sumers are left largely in the dark about po­ten­tial risks of the products they are us­ing.

Many men­stru­al-hy­giene products con­tain di­ox­in, syn­thet­ic fibers, chlor­ine, and fra­grances, but the amount of these in­gredi­ents — and the health risk they pose when used in these products — re­mains a bit of a ques­tion mark.

A re­port from Wo­men’s Voices for the Earth — a non­profit that seeks to elim­in­ate tox­ic chem­ic­als — links these in­gredi­ents to health prob­lems like en­do­crine dis­rup­tion, can­cer, and re­pro­duct­ive harm. The ex­tent of the risks as­so­ci­ated with fem­in­ine-hy­giene products are woe­fully un­der-re­searched, wo­men’s health ad­voc­ates say, but the fact that they are used on an ex­tremely ab­sorb­ent and per­meable area of the body raises the level of con­cern.

Rep. Car­o­lyn Malo­ney in­tro­duced le­gis­la­tion Wed­nes­day that aims to cla­ri­fy these un­knowns. The Robin Daniel­son Act — named after a vic­tim of Tox­ic Shock Syn­drome from tam­pon use — would re­quire the Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health to con­duct or sup­port re­search in­to these in­gredi­ents, en­cour­age the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion to look more heav­ily in­to the risks of a vari­ety of men­stru­al products, in­crease over­sight of com­pany data sub­mit­ted to NIH and FDA, and re­quire pub­lic dis­clos­ure of the in­form­a­tion.

The de­gree to which these products are mon­itored by the FDA de­pends on their clas­si­fic­a­tion and level of risk, ac­cord­ing to an in­dustry spokes­per­son. Tam­pons and pads are clas­si­fied as med­ic­al devices and sub­ject to more reg­u­la­tion — par­tic­u­larly tam­pons be­cause of the threat of Tox­ic Shock Syn­drome. Oth­er fem­in­ine-hy­giene products like douche solu­tions and de­odor­izers are clas­si­fied as over-the-counter drugs or as cos­met­ics, de­pend­ing on the claims be­ing made, and they are sub­ject to less reg­u­la­tion. These are not gen­er­ally re­viewed by the FDA pri­or to mar­ket­ing.

The FDA does routinely mon­it­or di­ox­in levels in tam­pons, and the agency says con­cerns are largely un­foun­ded. While the agency has found trace di­ox­in levels in these products, the risk of neg­at­ive health im­pacts is “neg­li­gible,” it says.

Man­u­fac­tur­ers also main­tain that their products are se­cure. “The safety of wo­men is the found­a­tion of everything we do,” Mandy Cic­carella, a rep­res­ent­at­ive for Procter and Gamble — which owns Tam­pax and Al­ways brands — wrote in an email. “We share our fem­in­ine care product in­form­a­tion with in­de­pend­ent ex­perts — in­clud­ing med­ic­al con­sult­ants, uni­versity sci­ent­ists, and the FDA — so that wo­men can use our fem­in­ine-hy­giene products with con­fid­ence.”

But ad­voc­ates worry that even these small amounts of chem­ic­als could have a cu­mu­lat­ive ad­verse ef­fect, with thou­sands used over a life­time on an ex­tremely per­meable part of the body.

This is not the first time Rep. Malo­ney has in­tro­duced this kind of le­gis­la­tion; she’s been try­ing to pass it for more than a dec­ade. The New York Demo­crat first in­tro­duced tam­pon-safety le­gis­la­tion in 1997, in­tro­duced the first ver­sion of the Robin Daniel­son Act in 1999, and pushed sub­sequent ver­sions of the bill again in 2003, 2005, 2008, and 2011. The 2014 bill is dif­fer­ent in that it fo­cuses more on the reg­u­la­tion of oth­er types of fem­in­ine-hy­giene products be­sides tam­pons, said Rep. Malo­ney’s of­fice.

The biggest hurdle has been the un­will­ing­ness of law­makers to broach what could be con­sidered an un­com­fort­able sub­ject, ac­cord­ing to her of­fice.

“This is not ex­actly something con­gresspeople want go to the floor and talk about,” a spokes­per­son said.

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