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Your go-to sanitary product likely has harmful heavy metals in it, even if the label doesn’t say so!

Your go-to sanitary product likely has harmful heavy metals in it, even if the label doesn’t say so!
A new study published in Environment International found that 14 of the 30 tampon brands tested contained measurable quantities of 16 metals, including heavy metals like lead and arsenic. Unlike other areas of skin, the vaginal tissue readily absorbs substances, potentially leading to "systemic exposure" to these metals, warn scientists.

The study acknowledges several possible sources for the metals in tampons. They could be present in the cotton itself due to environmental factors or contamination. Alternatively, the metals might be added during manufacturing for purposes like pigmentation, whitening, or anti-bacterial properties. But how “safe” are they?

We know what you're thinking: a relatively tiny chunk of Indians use tampons. But while this study claims to be the first of its kind for tampons, this is hardly the first time questionable materials have been found in a sanitary product created for women. Other heavy metals, potentially harmful chemicals and even carcinogens have previously been detected in sanitary napkins as well. And last we checked, over 40% of Indian women used sanitary pads while menstruating.

Link between sanitary pads and reproductive diseases

A 2022 report focused on two main culprits: phthalates and volatile organic compounds that are added for elasticity and absorbency in pads. These chemicals were detected in all ten tested brands, including both inorganic and organic varieties. Popular names like Whisper, Stayfree, Sofy, PeeSafe, Nua, and Plush were included in the analysis.
Experts have repeatedly warned of the potential health risks associated with these chemicals, going as far as to suggest that these chemicals could disrupt hormonal functions, potentially leading to PCOS, endometriosis, and hypothyroidism. Long-term exposure may even increase cancer risk. The concern is heightened by the vagina's high absorbency, allowing these chemicals to enter the body at a faster rate.

A lot of this is conjecture based on what doctors and experts suspect, primarily because not nearly enough research has been conducted on the potential impacts of sanitary products on women’s bodies. Naturally, there’s a lack of regulation from governments on period products.

The glaring lack of proper labelling of sanitary products

Sanitary product manufacturers love to wrap their stuff in flowery and “girly” packages, with the size of a pad’s wings and how it will last you all day long advertised in bold letters. But they don’t think it’s necessary to test their products for their content and perhaps even share that little tidbit with their customers.

Companies making pads and tampons are usually exempt from listing ingredients as these are categorised as "medical products." However, many argue this label is misleading as pads cannot be considered medical intervention, they’re just for absorption.

The absence of research on quality standards raises red flags. Individuals and NGOs have voiced concerns about potentially harmful chemicals in some pads but to no avail. Even existing regulations offer no solace. The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) did implement higher quality standards for reusable sanitary pads, sanitary napkins and period panties. However, Without ingredient lists, it's impossible for consumers to make informed choices about their health.

A call for change

This lack of transparency and outdated regulations create a situation where millions of women are unknowingly exposed to potential health risks. Sanitary pad companies should be required to list all ingredients on the packaging, empowering consumers with knowledge. The BIS needs to update its guidelines to include thorough testing for harmful chemicals, ensuring safety. Most of all, further research is crucial to assess the quality and safety of sanitary pads available in the Indian market.
While the ongoing research sheds light on a previously unknown potential health risk associated with sanitary products, we acknowledge that using a pad is a lot more hygienic and safe than using a cloth rag. But clear labelling and stricter regulations are essential to ensure the safety of individuals who rely on these products.