Periods And Pollution: The Bloody Truth
When you think about periods, what first comes to mind? Chocolate, cramps, that one awkward day in health class? The environment is an unlikely consideration. This is a universal problem; the environmental and human health implications from menstrual products are rarely discussed. The truth is that period products are polluting our bodies and our planet. And corporations have been getting away with it for years.
Pesticides, Phthalates, Parabens, Oh My!
Sometimes we joke that menstruation is a mystery; how can someone bleed for several days and be fine? But, the real question should be, what is going into our bodies every month?
The content of menstrual products has severe implications for our environment. According to National Geographic, in 2018 alone, 5.8 billion tampons were sold in the U.S. The menstrual product industry is worth $3 billion. The average menstruator (which includes cisgender women, transgender men, non-binary individuals, and many others) needs between 5,000-15,000 pads and tampons in their lifetime. Most mainstream menstrual products found in supermarkets and drugstores are laden with plastic, in either the applicator (for tampons) or the lining (pads), as well as external packaging. The tangible waste from our menstrual products is an obvious concern. Yet, the full extent of pollution from the period product industry doesn’t end here.
Research compiled by Women’s Voices for Earth (WVE), an intersectional nonprofit, has revealed a myriad of toxins present in menstrual products and related items. While menstruation does not just affect women, WVE is focused on highlighting the disproportionate pollution women and other marginalized groups experience.
According to the “Chem Fatale” report released by WVE in 2013, tampons have been found to contain traces of pesticides the U.S. EPA has classified as “probable human carcinogens,” or “suggestive of carcinogenicity”. This research conflicts with the (non-binding) U.S. FDA recommendation that tampons be “free of pesticide residue”.
Indeed, the cotton part of tampons that is inserted contains pesticides because it was sprayed while it was being grown in mass quantities in fields. Several other toxins known as dioxins and furans (widely called “PCBs”) were also detected; PCBs are byproducts of the chlorine bleaching of tampons and pads and remain in the fibers. PCBs are linked to cancer, reproductive issues, and endocrine disruption. While trace levels of these chemicals have been dismissed as safe by many researchers, given previous literature on exposure from foods, the highly permeable tissues of the vagina and this route of chemical exposure have been widely unaccounted for.
Fragrance has also been found in tampons, pads, douches, and sprays. According to WVE, “‘fragrance’ is a mixture of ingredients that can include any of over 3,000 different chemicals; and the components of any one fragrance are usually kept secret by manufacturers”. WVE research also noted that low-income, Latinx, and Black menstruators are more likely to use douches and these additional products for menstrual health, which disproportionately heightens their chemical exposure.
Subsequent studies have only confirmed the presence of more carcinogenic and hormone disrupting chemicals in tampons and pads, including phthalates, parabens, and biphenols, among many others. These chemicals may also have adverse ecosystem effects when they leach into the environment through landfill waste or water if the products are flushed into sewers.
The Impact of the Stigma
These risks to the environment and human health are compounded by the menstrual stigma. Menstruation has been viewed as dirty, gross, and inappropriate for centuries. To curb this issue, some period product companies have sought to promote female empowerment. But, it’s hollow.
While touting feminist mantras, such as the Always brand’s #LikeAGirl campaign in 2014, the same corporations have continued to profit off of the menstrual stigma-- at the expense of our bodies and the environment. Menstrual product companies have evaded regulation and transparency because periods continue to be ignored by the men and (yes, even) women in political office. Discomfort surrounding periods has delegitimized menstruators’ concerns for decades; this reluctance to recognize menstruation as a valid health concern, as opposed to an emotional one, continues to demolish efforts to repeal the “tampon tax” and get free products in schools. Likewise, the environmental and health consequences of period products have been silenced. Existing policies perpetuate this problem. The U.S. FDA does not require menstrual product companies to even disclose their ingredients.
A common approach to solving environmental challenges and circumventing political gridlock is to start at an individual or community level and implement changes to reduce waste. In the menstruation space, this can mean switching to products that are chemical-free or non-disposable, such as menstrual cups (many people recognize the name Diva Cup, but there are many brands) or washable period underwear. However, many of these products still contain plastics and other chemicals.
Earlier this year, for example, the Sierra Club reported that Thinx organic period underwear were found to contain high levels of PFAS, a non-degradable chemical linked to endocrine disruption, cancer, and birth defects. Thus, many alternative menstrual products are deceitful, let alone financially inaccessible. The presence of such chemicals is not merely the result of an imperfect product or a mistake by Thinx. This is a byproduct of a sheer absence of oversight. Even companies with green branding tactics and sustainability-minded platitudes can get away with polluting our bodies.
This story seems grim, but the ending doesn’t have to be. Menstrual activism has become more mainstream and legitimized in recent years. This has only paved the way for strong campaigns for regulations. For instance, after tireless activism from feminist and health-orientated organizations, California recently passed The Menstrual Products Right to Know Act (AB 1989) that would mandate the listing of ingredients in menstrual products that are manufactured on or after January 1, 2023. This was one year after New York passed a similar bill; these are the only two states in the nation with such requirements. I’m confident they won’t be the last. Transparency is the first step towards stronger regulations to protect our health and our environment.
The best solutions to the biggest challenges never operate on their own. We need to divest ourselves from the conventional idea that environmentalism is distinct from other facets of life. Feminism, racial justice, and menstrual equity have always been central to this movement. We deserve to know the truth about these chemicals-- and this fight is far from over.
Want to talk about the ways you can push back or share your thoughts? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s chat!
The Conscious College Project Blog Contributor