Thursday, March 29, 2012

Icky: a women's health Public Service Announcement (pt. I)

The last time I blogged about reusable menstrual products, I only briefly broached the subjects of health and hygiene, preferring to focus on the cost savings involved in using cloth pads during the 3-6 weeks of bleeding that women experience postpartum. I think that somewhere in my mind, I was hesitant to vilify the manufacturers of disposable products, charitably doubting that they could really be careless or deceitful about what they were telling women was safe to insert into their own bodies. Tampons today are just wads of cotton of the throwaway variety, right? I thought they got rid of the TSS-causing chemicals and gels in the '80s?

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. After looking into this further, I was dead wrong! And I think it's high time, with "women's health" being a hot media buzzword right now, that we at eLeMeNO-Pee tackle this as a company that stands for the health of mothers and babies.

So what prompted this burst of research inspiration? One of my former clients (congratulations to her on the early potty-training!) is the Saginaw, Texas blogger who found the famed moldy fresh-out-of-the-package tampon on Tuesday, March 27. She is a long-time personal friend. While there are rumors to the contrary, this is undoubtedtly real! And it's undoubtedly hit your Facebook or Twitter feeds by now.

In Kotex's parent company Kimberly-Clark's e-mail response to Parr's product support inquiry about her discovery (a discovery that "shouldn't" have even been made, because the mold was beneath the applicator that she accidentally broke when pushing it through the plastic wrapper), a customer service representative who identified herself as Betty wrote:
"We understand how distressing it can be to find mold on a product that is used for personal hygiene and apologize for your concern.  In instances where it has been found, we conducted tests on the product involved and have found the mold to be a common environmental species that carries no health risk.  The vegetative mold is similar in nature to mold on vegetables or in baked goods."
Accidentally breaking the applicator revealed green and black mold growing on the cotton tampon.

(The customer service representative continued the e-mail for another couple of paragraphs, offering Parr coupons for discounted Kotex tampons before signing off.)

Let's ignore the e-mail's implication that this is not a rare occurrence (yikes!!). Let's focus on the "facts" that Betty from Kotex used to try to reassure the consumer. She compared the mold to the type of vegetative mold that grows on bread or produce. As long as you don't eat it, that stuff carries no health risk, right?

Not if you're allergic to mold. According to the Mayo Clinic Web site, respiratory exposure to mold in persons who are allergic can lead to serious complications such as asthma, lung and sinus infections, pneumonitis, even anaphylactic shock. In infants who are allergic, respiratory exposure can cause pulmonary hemorrhage. While cases of anaphylactic shock and other fatal or near-fatal reactions to breathing in mold are rare, they are worth mentioning.

But Danielle Parr wasn't supposed to have breathed this mold. She was supposed to have inserted it into her body to absorb menstrual blood, having never seen the tampon because it was inside an applicator. I don't recommend that you google "mold in vagina" unless you have excellent search engine filters in place, but your average woman is aware of what it means for her when the pH of the vagina is disturbed or a foreign substance like mold or bacteria is introduced. She's on her way to a prescription for Diflucan and some of the most uncomfortable days of her life.

What of non-applicator tampons, you ask? You can see the entire surface there. What about disposable pads? Why vilify all conventional disposable menstrual products?

For some of the same reasons we warn against the more-than-occasional use of disposable diapers: The materials that make them up are just plain sketchy, treated with a side dose of dangerous:
 
  • GMO cotton or cotton/rayon blend (tampons), cotton/plastic weave (pads).
  • Chlorine bleach, which means they are exposed to and will absorb dioxin, a byproduct of the chlorine bleaching process.
  • Glue.
  • Sodium polyacrylate super-absorbent gels derived from petroleum (in pads), the same product found in disposable diapers to make them super-absorbent.
  • Polypropylene.
  • Polyethelene film.
  • Pthalates, which are linked to hormone disruption.
These materials themselves are risky (see The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics for more info), but beyond that, their super-absorbent properties are also known to cause extreme dryness, disrupted pH, agitation, and inflammation of vaginal wall tissue, which leads to heavier flow and more painful periods. Any gynecologist, gyn nurse practitioner, or midwife will confirm this; ask yours!

In addition to the potential toxicity of these materials, the fact remains that Danielle Parr's brand new, unopened tampon was probably just functioning optimally. This mold issue may have been completely unrelated to the factory process. It's just that tampons are SO super-absorbent that it absorbed some tiny bead of moisture in her dry North Texas home, and some tiny mold spore was absorbed and given an optimum place to grow -- in cotton, beneath an opaque piece of plastic, the applicator.

This could, theoretically, happen to any super-absorbent disposable product, diapers included. Kotex's applicator design probably contributed, but Kotex isn't the problem; the problem is inherent to disposable products intended to absorb liquids.

The bigger problem is that not only are disposable menstrual products dishonestly marketed as completely safe for all women, but a high-profile company like Kimberly-Clark (makers of Huggies, Cottonelle, Kotex, and Kleenex, among other common brandname household products) thinks that tossing some coupons to a dissatisfied consumer, especially a consumer who expresses concern about the health and safety of a product after making shocking discovery such as this one, is an acceptable response to the consumer's deservedly alarmed correspondence.

Wow.

I know I normally hop from happy topic to happy topic, doing product spotlights one week, fun features or industry news the next. But I'm going to break this up over the course of two weeks, because I think it's important to follow up on this.

So next week, I'll cover your women's hygiene alternatives, both reusable and disposable, including these strange-sounding menstrual cups and cloth pads you've probably read about in comment threads if you've followed this news story at all. Some of these alternatives are products that your local rep carries, and some of them aren't. All are made of safe or safer materials than conventional disposable menstrual products, and they're made by small manufacturers whose business ethics stand in stark contrast to what has been displayed by Kimberly-Clark this week. This isn't about sales. It's about letting women know that, no matter their lifestyle or situation, they have options, and they deserve better.