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Pulling the plug on tampon myths and facts

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

Ever since its conception in the early 1930’s, women all over the world have celebrated the freedom and comfort of the contraption known as the tampon. However, the tampon, with its suspicious medical history and alarming e-mail rumors, has also sent many women to consider other alternatives – the organic alternative.
In the early 70s and 80s more than 50 women died while countless others suffered harmful effects of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), which is a bacteria infection caused by toxins from the use of synthetic fibers in tampons to increase absorbancy.

If this wasn’t enough to scare women into pledging allegiance to the pad, a chain e-mail circulating in 1998 accused the tampon industry of using asbestos, which is a toxic group of minerals generally used for electricity and chemicals. The e-mail claimed that the asbestos made women bleed more – which, in turn, would cause women to buy more tampons.

However, this e-mail was later pronounced a hoax. On, an article on tampon health cites Dr. Phillip Teirno Jr., a chief of clinical microbiology at the NYU Medical Center who has worked with the Museum of Menstruation, as reporting that in examining the documents from the TSS outbreak, there has never been any evidence of the use of asbestos in the making of tampons.

Nevertheless, many women still denounce tampons for the use of rayon, which can amplify toxins, for the use of conventional cotton, which is sprayed by pesticides and herbicides, and, recently, for the use of undisclosed chemical fragrances. Dioxin levels also remain a concern.

Ilya Sandra Perlingieri wrote an article for the Organic Consumers Association in which she states, “Since a typical woman uses more than 11, 500 tampons in her lifetime, even small traces of dioxin may add up.” She added that some women’s health courses in college show the effects of the tampon by placing one in a glass of water then taking it out and examining the remaining fibers. Those fibers are left in women’s bodies.

According to the FDA Web site, however, even this is a rumor. “State-of-the art testing of tampons and tampon materials that can detect even trace amounts of dioxin has shown that dioxin levels are at or below the detectable limit,” an article claims on the Web site. “No risk to health would be expected from these trace amounts.”

Whether or not any of these claims hold true, there are alternatives for the eco-friendly women.

Some of these include the Keeper, which is a reusable soft natural rubber cup that collects menstrual fluid and can be emptied, rinsed, and reused for as long as ten years.

Also available are menstrual pads made of washable cloth, sold by Lunapads and GladRags, as well as the sea sponge, which is a harvested, reusable, natural sponge tampon. The Instead Softcup, another product which is similar to Keeper in that it also collects fluid, allows women to have sex during their periods but can’t be used as a contraceptive. For those seeking a less dramatic switch in tools, there’s Natracare – a company which creates traditional tampons and pads made of organic, unbleached cotton.

Natracare is a favorite of employees of Elephant Pharmacy, a Berkeley based company that offers alternative health and beauty products. Lauren Schiller, VP of Marketing for Elephant Pharmacy of the organic prodcuts, said “We all switched over because it’s the idea of using something that doesn’t use bleach or chemicals feels a lot better.”