On Dec. 12, Kotex voluntarily recalled some of its tampon products for unraveling or breaking apart inside consumers’ bodies. Kimberly-Clark, Kotex’s parent company, said in a press release it received “a small number of reports of infections, vaginal irritation, localized vaginal injury, and other symptoms” and that in some cases consumers had to seek medical attention “to remove tampon pieces left in the body.”
Currently, there is no federal or state law requiring Kotex, or any other menstrual hygiene company, to share the ingredients — including the chemicals — that make up its products. This is a problem, says Linda Rosenthal, a Democratic member of the New York state Assembly. When tampons are falling apart inside people’s bodies, she told HuffPost, doctors should be able to know how to treat these patients. But they’ll struggle to do it if they don’t know what’s causing the problem, she said.
“And who knows what the long-term effects are?” Rosenthal asked in disbelief. “It’s case in point for why we need ingredient labeling on products people put inside their body.”
Rosenthal is sponsoring legislation in New York to require ingredient labeling on the packaging of all menstrual products sold in the state. The Assembly is expected to consider the bill in 2019; if it passes, it will be the first law of its kind in the United States.
Manufacturers might list some, but not all, ingredients on feminine hygiene packaging or on their products’ websites.
In a letter to Kimberly-Clark, the Assembly member asked the company to “publicly disclose the chemicals present in these products so that menstruators can work with their health care providers to properly manage risks associated with exposure.” She has yet to receive a response.
Rosenthal isn’t alone in her fight. In 2017, for example, the Menstrual Products Right to Know Act was introduced in Congress, though it later stalled.
“I think, usually, if you’re afraid of revealing something, it’s something not so good,” Rosenthal said. She fears these products contains an array of chemicals that “more and more people are becoming sensitive to.”
A recent study commissioned by the organization Women’s Voices for the Earth detected chemicals like carbon disulfide, a known reproductive toxin, and methylene chloride, a potential occupational carcinogen, in popular tampon brands. These ingredients are not disclosed on product packaging. (WVE, it should be noted, partners with two menstrual product brands, Seventh Generation and Natracare, both of which appeared free of chemicals in the testing.)
This is not the only study on menstrual products and potential contaminants, but research into the topic is limited. There are also conflicting opinions on what is considered “safe” when it comes to the levels of chemicals in these products. Trace amounts of dioxin, a chemical that has been associated with endometriosis, have been deemed “safe” by the Food and Drug Administration, The New York Times reported in 2017. Manufacturers are required to assess the dioxin levels in their products on their own, and then provide the FDA with their results.
Some experts worry that the harmfulness of dioxin could be greater than is widely assumed. Carolyn Nygaard, a naturopathic physician, told The Guardian in 2016 that she is unsure of the chemical’s effects on women’s health over time, and isn’t confident the FDA considers this. Women menstruate for up to 40 years, Nygaard told The Guardian, wearing up to 20 tampons once a month, 13 times a year. “So there is the potential to have cumulative effects from that,” she said. The vaginal membrane is more absorptive than skin on other parts of the body, which raises specific concerns around chemicals like dioxin in products meant to be inserted vaginally, the publication noted.
Rosenthal is a pioneer in fronting legislation for fair treatment of people who menstruate.
In March 2018, she introduced the Total Access to Menstrual Products Act to the Assembly. The TAMP Act would require all female-designated bathrooms in the state of New York to provide hygiene products at no cost.
“Toilet paper is assumed in every bathroom,” Rosenthal said. “Why should there not be products to help half the population deal with their biological function? It doesn’t make sense. If you can expect toilet paper, you should be able to expect menstrual products.”
Rosenthal also helped spearhead a bill that would require state correctional facilities to provide incarcerated people with menstrual products at no cost. The bill passed.
Ultimately, Rosenthal said, laws relating to menstrual health will help to reduce the stigma and shame that surrounds the topic.
The fight for these types of legal actions underscores how desperately we need more women in power, Rosenthal added.
“If women had been in charge in the beginning, I think that there would already be menstrual hygiene products in bathrooms,” she said.