Toxins & Tampons

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By Rachel Thompson

Attention all menstruating women: If it isn't enough that tampons and applicators are clogging up our waste disposal systems, with "little pink things" (plastic applicators) washing up on beaches everywhere, here's something that may swear you off the things. At least the chlorinated ones.

Women were first alerted to problems with tampons in the early 1980s.

Many women fell quite ill some died, those that didn't have to live with the condition for the rest of their lives.

Toxic Shock Syndrome had struck, and it struck menstruating women using tampons. Absorbency seemed to be the key the more absorbent the tampon, the more likely to cause TSS.

In fact, cases of TSS started after the introduction of super absorbent artificial fibres like rayon intotampons. These types of fibres are still used today, but are mixed with cotton. Some say this still isn't safe enough.

Fibres cut

Artificial fibres (like rayon) used in tampons are abrasive, so when a tampon lengthens it pushes against the cervical area, causing tiny cuts and imbedding pieces into the tissue.

Toxins in tampons

Toxic ingredients found in tampons today include aluminum, alcohols, fragrance additives and hydrocarbons. Worst of all, tampon bleaching processes leave behind dioxin.

Dioxin, a toxic chemical (chlorine-compound) linked to cancer (and perhaps now to
endometriosis), is said by most manufacturers not to appear in bleached tampons at "detectable" levels.

But that depends on how you measure. And since dioxin can build up in your body over time, even the tiniest amount, found at parts per billion instead of million, could affect you.

Why then is dioxin in tampons?

In Europe, health authorities say any level of dioxin is not acceptable, and the World Health Organization lists dioxin as a carcinogen. Yet right now Health Canada has no position on the substance.


Since run-of-the-mill menstrual pads use similar bleaching processes to tampons -- leaving dioxin not inside, but intimately close to your body -- this isn't necessarily the best alternative (but it is a better one).

The good news is that there are companies that produce unbleached cotton tampons, some using organically produced cotton (grown without the use of chemicals). There is also The Keeper©, a re- usable menstrual cup.

Plus, a lot of women concerned about their health and environment are making or buying washable menstrual pads.

Our bodies our blood

The alternatives to bleached tampons involve more contact with your blood. That's all there is to it. The natural tampons don't have applicators because they have been known to injure women. Using washable menstrual pads means washing the blood out of the pads.

This can be very liberating. But since menstruation has been literally sanitized for us, touching menstrual blood can gross us out.

That's why products like bleached tampons are still at the top of the market. They provide the cleanest (whitest) product, and reinforce that blood is dirty in advertisements by not even daring to show the stuff instead using blue liquid, neither the consistency nor colour of our blood.


Blood Sisters
Born out of a "guerilla-girl recyclable pad distribution network.

Museum of Menstruation and Women's Health

Many Moons: Alternative Menstruation Products
Tel/Fax: (250) 582-8815
Toll-free: 1-800-916-4444

Natural Tampons and Menstrual Pads

Terra Femme...chlorine free, cotton tampons developed by women for women
Tel: (416) 539-8548
Fax: (416) 539-9784

The Keeper© (click here)

Further Reading:

Whitewash: Exposing the health and Environmental dangers of women's sanitary products and disposable diapers -- what you can do about it.
By Liz Armstrong and Adrienne Scott.

 Toxic Shock Syndrome is a rare but serious disease that mainly strikes menstruating women under thirty who are using tampons. The disease is a syndrome, or group of symptoms. Only those people who have all the symptoms are officially counted as having TSS. However, there are reports of people with a few of the symptoms who may have a milder form of the same disease.

The symptoms are:

  • A high fever, usually over 102 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • A sudden drop in blood pressure that may lead to shock
  • A sunburn-like rash that peels after a while

If you get any of these symptoms during your period and you are using a tampon, remove it immediately and seek help from a health care practitioner.

Source: The New Our Bodies, Ourselves By the Boston Women's Health Collective Published by Simon & Schuster, 1992.

A simple test: Put a run-of-the-mill tampon in a glass jar of water. Come back in a few hours and you will find the water cloudy with residue.