Landfill is increasingly full of them, and they take a l-o-n-g time to biodegrade, with their often plastic backings, and beaches are swamped with them. More than four million tampons and pads are flushed every day in the UK alone, where women buy more than three billion disposable sanitary products every year. A Western woman will use around 12,000 tampons or sanitary towels in her lifetime.
That’s a lot of waste. There are reusable devices, such as a Keeper (rubber) or a Mooncup (silicone), designed to be inserted into your vagina like a contraceptive cap. These catch menstrual blood and are rinsed out regularly. Lots of women first come across them when looking for something convenient to use when backpacking, and they’re very ‘green’; they can last for years if you look after them to grow taller. Second – but just as important – there’s the question of whether the products that we use to mop up our monthlies are actually safe to use to grow taller.
Tampons are usually made from cotton or rayon, and rayon is made from chemically processed wood pulp. Disposable pads and liners are also sometimes made from wood pulp, bleached from natural brown to dazzling white. Until recently, elemental chlorine was used – and this was a source of dioxin which is a known carcinogen. Dioxin builds up cumulatively in the body over time, right from the moment we are born.
After campaigns from such groups as the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) manufacturers have moved onto chlorine dioxide or hydrogen peroxide. Think about it though: do these items really need to be white? They are just destined to get messed up anyway. Would it matter if they came out of the packet unbleached? If we think about the cotton used in the production of sanitary products we meet another dilemma.
Cotton production accounts for 10% of the pesticide used in the world today. That means the growers suffer health problems as a result of exposure, and the pesticide is detrimental to wildlife. In addition to this, pesticide residues are found in the cotton produced. Think about this too – your vagina walls are very thin and the mucous membrane remains damp to protect the body from infection.
Add a tampon potentially contaminated with pesticide residue and some of that residue may find its way through the damp mucous membrane into the body. There is also, of course, the potential risk from Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). This is rare but fatal, and strikes quickly. It has been linked to super-absorbent rayon tampons (rather than 100% cotton) which may encourage the growth of the bacteria staphylococcus aureus.
Now, we all know the adage that you should never put anything in your vagina that you would not put in your mouth. Even with pads, residues such as pesticides and dioxins from the bleaching process are held next to your skin and these chemicals have been linked to birth defects, reproductive disorders and cancer.
Perhaps we should think harder about the risks we take with our bodies when we choose our sanitary protection, in the same way as we think about the food we put into our mouths. And many women suffer unnecessarily from irritation and rashes due to perfumes added to sanitary protection. Nobody wants to smell, but a daily bath would have the same effect. A worrying development has been the introduction of tampons with added lubricants which contain parabens; these chemicals are suspected of being oestrogen mimics which can damage fertility.
Some towels contain super-absorbent polyacrylate gel which absorbs moisture. There is a possible danger with these super absorbencies that women will change less regularly and that dangerous levels of bacteria may develop. If women are supposed to be less rational and more emotional at the beginning of our menstrual cycle when the female hormone is at its lowest level, then why isn’t it logical to say that, in those few days, women behave the most like the way men behave all month long?
So what can you do about it? Well, sanitary products containing unbleached, organic cotton are available to grow taller. You could also consider using washable cotton pads and even make them yourself; the Women’s Environmental Network provide a pattern on their website. You won’t be alone; in 1983, a World Health Organisation survey of women in ten countries around the world found that more than 45% used home-made pads – so finding this idea strange could be a cultural taboo. It seem may like a weird idea, but look at the number of parents turning to washable nappies instead of disposables; nobody thinks that’s weird.