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TOXIC TAMPONS The question's absorbing: Are tampons little white lies?
By Joanna Citrinbaum
So your tampon's out of sight, out of mind... right? Maybe it shouldn't be. Tampons have been around for almost 70 years, but it wasn't until the addition of synthetic chemicals and the discovery of toxic shock syndrome (TSS) that researchers began to question their safety. In doing so, they've pulled the plug on possible health risks. Dr. Ilya Sandra Perlingieri, retired professor from San Diego State University and author of the recently released The Uterine Crisis, said women who read the risks of tampon use off the side of a box aren't getting the full story.
What's in your tampon?
Tampons are made of a variety of ingredients, "Tampons are not just cotton," Perlingieri said. "They are made of dyes, fragrances, super-absorbent chemicals." She said research has found a link between uterine problems and bleached tampons.
"In the last 25 years, millions of women--teens through women in elder years--have uterine-related troubles," she said. "Part of the trouble we know from research is directly related to bleaching of tampons."
Chlorine from bleach eventually turns to dioxin, Perlingieri said. "All tampons are bleached with the exception of two companies," she said. "Chlorine, whether in laundry, swimming pools, or in tampons, breaks down into a deadly chemical called dioxin."
"Dioxin is one of the most dangerous chemicals on the planet and literally a tablespoon [of it] would kill everyone on the planet," she said. "It's so deadly."
Jill Wood, an instructor in Penn State's women's studies department who received her master's degree studying menstruation and menstrual health, said she does not use tampons as a precaution for her health and safety.
"I don't use commercial tampons," she said. "I don't think the health risks are reasonable. I also eat organic food. Pesticides and dioxins are not safe in food or tampons."
She said tampon companies underestimate the effects of dioxin. "Tampon manufacturers say that [tampons] are safe and levels of dioxin are so low that they are almost undetectable," she said. "[That may be] true, but we only need a small trace amount for dioxin to do damage. It accumulates in our bodies over our lifetime and it's not something the body can ever get rid of. Ingesting it in food is one thing, but putting it in vaginas is another."
Tierno said chlorine bleach, while safer than other bleaches, is not safe in respect to the large amount of tampons women can use in their lifetime.
"The chemical used to bleach tampons, chlorine dioxide, is better than chlorine bleaches used previously," he said. "Even in small amounts, it is no good and many women use tampons throughout their lives. This is quite significant."
Perlingieri also believes dioxin is unsafe because women use a lot of tampons. "Women use 11 to 12,000 tampons over their life cycle ... maybe more with teens using them," she said. "All that dioxin going into a woman's bloodstream and all those fibers wandering around in a woman's body--that's part of the toxic brew. Tampon companies have known for decades that the ingredients in products are not safe."
Tierno said companies need to show people data proving their products are safe. "Is chlorine dioxide better?" he asked. "Manufacturers say, 'yes,' and chemically, it is. There is probably less dioxin, but they have to prove that and show individuals with data. They have not done that as far as I know. It needs to be brought to the attention of consumers that use their products. More studies need to be done."
Tampax tampons do not contain dioxin, Plummer said. "There's a lot of discussion as to how [tampons are] made and manufactured," she said. "Ours goes through an elemental chlorine-free process and doesn't result in dioxin. There is no dioxin in the process. It's been an industry standard for many years." Wood said another reason there are many chemicals in tampons is because of how rayon is made.
"Rayon is a whole other problem," she said. "It's made from wood pulp and during the process of converting wood to rayon, hundreds of chemicals that are used are imbedded in tampons."
Pesticides have been around for a long time and are still used today. In fact, Perlingieri said, most people are exposed to anywhere between 87,000 and 100,000 chemicals, most of which are untested.
Tampax maintains that its cotton goes through a process that eliminates any impurities. "The cotton goes through a purification process also," Plummer said. "The cotton used in tampons doesn't have pesticide residue and cotton and rayon are equally safe materials. The bleaching process helps assure that there aren't any pesticides." Perlingieri also believes a lot of tampon manufacturers use genetically modified cotton, which resists the effects of antibiotics.
"The latest research has said genetic cotton used for tampons confers resistance to antibiotics," she said. "That means since in the U.S. we have the highest rate of STDs [sexually-transmitted diseases] in the world, that anybody that uses tampons that are genetically modified with cotton and who also have any STD may not respond to the antibiotics."
Do cotton fibers come off of tampons and stay in the vagina after tampon removal? If so, do these fibers adversely affect women's health? If these (vaginal) walls could talk...
Fibers remain in the vagina after a tampon is removed, Tierno said. "Fibrous material is left behind," he said. "There are little particulates that come off. Fluid discharge is part of normal movement of the material. Some [fibers are] eliminated with it, but some [are] not."
Wood suggests students set up an experiment to see how easily fibers come off of tampons. Take a glass of warm water, she said, and put a tampon in it. "[Keep it in the glass] as long as you would leave a tampon in[side your vagina]," she said. After you remove it from the glass, observe all the fibers that remain. "Are you willing to risk having all of those fibers inside of you?" she asked.
Even worse, Wood said, are the fibers left behind in the process of removing the tampon.
"You're pulling a tampon out through such a tiny hole and it's rubbing against the sides of the vagina," she said. "This is another reason why it is important to use the correct absorbency level. With the combination of high absorbency and decreased flow of menstruation, the risk increases for leaving fibers behind during tampon removal."
This can lead to the formation of ulcerations, Wood said. "Ulcerations are caused by the combination of the chemicals [in tampons] and the tampon being dry when coming out of the vagina," she said. "The chemicals are almost eating away at the vaginal tissue. This is also why you should not use an absorbency higher than necessary."
These ulcerations can increase a woman's risk for STDs, said Wood. "Ulcerations put you more at risk for STDs by creating little portals to the bloodstream," she said.
Tampax maintains that fibers usually do not remain in the vagina and even if they do, the tampon's ingredients are safe. "Fibers that remain are washed out in the normal cleansing process of the vagina," Plummer said. "And ingredients Tampax are made of are not harmful to the body at all."
If it's possible for tampons to cause ulcerations, is it possible that tampon usage can lead to diseases later on in a woman's life?
Unwrapping the Myths
Perlingieri believes tampons are one of the reasons for increasing vaginal problems.
"We now have staggering rates of endometriosis, fibroids, PID [Pelvic Inflammatory Disease], TSS and 1.7 million hysterectomies performed this past year--the most [ever]," she said. "Twenty-five years ago, these were rare illnesses for women."
But Tampax tampons have been used safely for a long time and that tampons are no longer associated with cervical cancer, Plummer said.
"Tampax has been used by women for over 65 years, from women around the world," she said. "For a while, tampons were blamed for cervical cancer. There's information now that it's caused by a virus and we have the Pap test to help diagnose if a woman has it."
She said there are various reasons why women get cancer and endometriosis, and tampons are not the only risk factor.