No One Really Knows If Your Tampons Are Safe Enough

Everyone knows where a tampon goes, but do you have any idea what goes into it?

(Photo: Getty Images)

Apr 26, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is TakePart's News Editor.

New legislation calls for a study to find out if there are toxic chemicals hiding in tampons, pads, and hygiene products women rely on. Considering how completely common these products are—it’s estimated a woman uses about 17,000 tampons in her lifetime—you would think we would already know they’re safe.

But in reality, the Food and Drug Administration gives its so-called approval with little oversight—essentially, it relies on manufacturers to do all the safety testing.

That isn’t to say all your personal-care products are unsafe. But considering how intimately dependent women are on these items, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., would like to know a little more. Her bill, the Robin Danielson Act, is named for a woman who died of toxic shock syndrome—a rare but life-threatening condition the Mayo Clinic says is associated with the use of superabsorbent tampons.

“Given the sheer number of women who use these products, it’s time we have definitive answers on their potential risks to women. Although the FDA requires tampon manufacturers to monitor dioxin levels, we still don’t know enough about the health risks of other chemical contaminants contained in these products,” Maloney said in a release earlier this month.

The bill calls on a non-FDA federal body, the National Institutes of Health, to study products and “the risks posed by dioxin, synthetic fibers, chemical fragrances, and other components of feminine hygiene products.” It would also require those self-reported safety reports from manufacturers to be verified.

Health advocacy group Women’s Voices for the Earth has studied some of the $3 billion industry’s products and found that “chemicals of concern such as carcinogens, reproductive toxins, endocrine disruptors and allergens are being used on, or even in, the extremely permeable mucus membranes of the vaginal area.”

In a 2013 report, the advocacy group found that dioxins—dubbed “persistent environmental pollutants” with “highly toxic potential” by the World Health Organization—and pesticide residues are potentially present in tampons and pads. The report also was critical of ingredients found in feminine washes, douches, and deodorants.

Getting Congress to take that sort of explicitly intimate detail seriously has been a challenge. Maloney has reintroduced similar legislation repeatedly since 1997, but the largely male slate of American legislators has ignored similar bills nine times—they’ve never so much as made it to a vote.

It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in American government: They hold about 20 percent of seats in both houses of Congress, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Yet, women voters have increasingly mattered in elections—in 2012, President Barack Obama won over female voters by a margin of 12 percentage points, while Republican challenger Mitt Romney won among men by a margin of 8 percentage points, according to Gallup. The pollsters dubbed it the largest gender gap “measured in a presidential election since [Gallup] began compiling the vote by major subgroups in 1952.”

The gender gap between parties has persisted, in part, because Republicans have been accused of waging a war on women through laws and votes that limit reproductive rights and deny women the right to equal pay and through leaders who exhibit lax attitudes toward rape. A CNN poll last year found that 55 percent of Americans believe the GOP “doesn’t understand women”—a particularly broad finding that says an entire political party doesn’t comprehend half the population.

But the blame doesn’t lie just with Republicans. Whether they’ve been squeamish or just plain disinterested, legislators have never mustered a vote on one of the most basic things that women deal with on a regular basis. Maybe the 10th time’s the charm.