Women's Environmental Group Asks Proctor & Gamble to "Detox the (Always) Box"
by Amanda Starbuck, 10/27/2014
Independent test results released this month found a slew of cancer-causing and neurotoxic chemicals in Always® brand maxi pads. Consumers want to know when everyday items like these contain toxic substances, but current federal standards do not require disclosure of chemicals used in these products. This lack of information is leaving many women in the dark about potential toxic exposures and the health risks they bring.
Testing for Toxins
Women’s Voices for the Earth, a national environmental health organization that focuses on toxic chemicals, funded the testing. The group commissioned the STAT Analysis firm to analyze four different Always® products for the presence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are chemicals released as gases by a variety of consumer products, including paints and cleaning supplies. The health effects vary depending on the specific chemicals released.
All four products emitted VOCs. These included cancer-causing substances like styrene, chemicals that disrupt development such as chloroethane, and neurotoxins like chloroform. Detectable levels of VOCs ranged from 0.44 to 480 parts per billion (ppb; 1 ppb is equal to a drop of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool).
Women’s Voices for the Earth states that while these levels of toxins seem low, they are a concern for women’s health. That’s because pads are intended to have prolonged contact with body tissues that can absorb chemicals, thus potentially increasing exposure risks. The organization stresses the need for more testing to understand the unique risks posed by toxic chemicals in feminine products.
The group is also gathering comments to send to Proctor & Gamble (the makers of Always®), urging them to “Detox the Box” by removing toxic chemicals from their products.
Women’s Voices for the Earth had to hire an independent research lab to uncover the toxins lurking in Always® products. That is because menstrual products are classified as medical devices by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Being classified as a medical device subjects tampons and pads to stricter regulations than other personal care products that are classified as cosmetics (such as many shampoos and lotions). This includes submitting premarket notifications to FDA. However, it also allows companies to withhold chemical information from the public. Product labels help women understand the chemicals in their shampoo and deodorant, but menstrual products offer no such disclosure – despite the fact that they are designed for close contact with more sensitive parts of the body.
While feminine products usually undergo clinical testing before reaching market, researchers have pointed to the insufficient attention given to the potential for chemical exposure during use. An article published in March in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives noted that health risks may be underestimated because studies have not taken into account the unique ability of the vaginal region to absorb toxins. The article surveys recent studies that have raised concerns about the health effects of feminine products, concluding that “it is apparent that more studies are needed to connect the dots.”
Legislation Designed to Address the Problem
Women’s Voices for the Earth commissioned this study to both inform women of the chemicals in Always® products, as well as to raise awareness of the need for better regulation of feminine products, including chemical disclosure requirements and more testing on chemicals' health effects.
For over a decade, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) has been pushing for improved regulation of feminine products. In 1999, she introduced the first version of the Robin Danielson Act, named for a victim of toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a rare but potentially fatal infection linked to tampon use. The first version focused mainly on regulating tampons, and subsequent versions were introduced four times between 2003 and 2011. In May 2014, she reintroduced the bill with an expanded focus on a broader range of feminine products. The bill would require the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to research possible health effects from chemicals in feminine products, including possible exposure to children from their mother’s use before or during pregnancy.
The most recent version of the legislation failed to make it through the committee process. According to Maloney’s office, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the fact that many representatives find it uncomfortable to talk about the subject, highlighting the importance of awareness and education.
Over the past several decades, consumers have become increasingly concerned with the chemicals in everyday products. Databases like the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep provide information on the chemicals in more than 69,000 personal care products and safety ratings for those items. Several states, including Maine and Washington, have enacted legislation to remove toxic chemicals from children’s products. Increasing the testing and disclosure of chemicals in feminine products is another step toward protecting consumers and giving them the information they need in order to make informed decisions about the products they use.
For more information on Women’s Voices for the Earth’s work on toxins in feminine products, visit their “Detox the Box” webpage.