Tussle Over Tampons

As the familiar feminine product is being marketed abroad, questions are raised at home about its safety

| July/August 2001

Pity the poor tampon. For the first half-century of its history, the humble wad of absorbent fiber enjoyed a reputation for reliability. Some even heralded tampons as the great emancipator, the answer to women’s dreams of independence and autonomy.

Then came the 1980s and concern about toxic shock syndrome (TSS). Researchers found that highly absorbent tampons, if infrequently changed, could lead to a vaginal infection caused by staphylococcus bacteria. What’s more, in rare cases, bacterial toxins could suddenly overwhelm the victim, causing severe illness and even death. Modifications in tampon design and product labeling, combined with a vigorous

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public health campaign outlining proper tampon use, dramatically reduced the number of confirmed cases of TSS from a high of 814 in 1980 to just 5 in 1997.

Then in the late 1990s, rumors about tampon safety began making the rounds on the Internet. Critics accused tampon manufacturers of adding asbestos to their product to encourage excessive menstrual bleeding and raised concerns that tampons contained dioxin, a known carcinogen that was said to be generated by the chemical process for bleaching tampon materials.

Eager to quell the alarm over tampon safety, manufacturers launched an aggressive public relations campaign designed to allay consumer fears. Testing confirmed that asbestos is not an ingredient or even a trace contaminant in any brand of tampon manufactured in the United States. The FDA also dismissed dioxin concerns, stating that 'cellulose used in U.S. tampons is now produced using elemental chlorine-free bleaching processes that produce no dioxin.'

But not all environmental and women’s health activists are convinced that chlorine-free bleaching eliminates dioxin concerns. In E Magazine (March/April 2001), Jennifer Bogo questions whether elemental chlorine-free bleaching is truly safe. 'Even the Food and Drug Administration acknowledges that chlorine dioxide, though [it is] elementally chlorine free, can still ‘theoretically generate dioxins at extremely low levels,’ ' she writes, 'and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, no safe level for dioxin exposure exists.'

In response to dioxin fears, a number of smaller companies, including Natracare and Organic Essentials, began producing unbleached-cotton tampons. And a growing number of women are questioning the ultimate value of tampons. The zine Femmenstruation Rites Rag gathers stories about and tips for celebrating menses. In issue #4, Karen F. writes, 'For quite a few years now, I have chosen not to cram tampons up inside my body. I never thought it was a wise thing to do, especially after that Toxic Shock scare of the early ’80s. . . . And now they’re finding dioxins & carcinogens in the lily-white bleached tampons they think we require. So I say—use big, bulky pads from a health-food store—or choose to bleed freely, ’coz that’s OK too!'