Introduction Whether you are comfortable with the idea or not, everyone knows a family member, friend, coworker, or your own self, that menstruates at least once a month from ages as young as 8-15 until they are about 45-55 (“Menstruation (Menstruation Cycle, Period)”). This only means that you, or they, will inevitably find use in menstruation products. As of today, we see the industry for feminine hygiene and period products booming, since it is a necessity, with reports estimated to be worth $15 billion and growing (“Feminine Hygiene Products”). However, there is a problematic truth that comes from menstruation products that affects humans globally through environmental waste, personal risks and hazards, costs, accessibility, and the overall ethics of the situation.
A Short History Menstruation products are items that are used during a monthly menstruation cycle, often referred to as a period, which lasts anywhere between 2-7 days (“Menstruation (Menstruation Cycle, Period)”). Menstruation products range from a variety of items including menstrual cups; which are cups made of different materials that are worn inside of the body to collect fluid, to more popular items such as disposable pads; which are worn outside the body using an adhesive strip to fix the product to underwear, made up of various layers (Peberdy et al.), and tampons; which are inserted into the body for fluid absorption, where each of these products is recommended for no longer than 7-8 hour use, if needed. According to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, products mocking the same concept as tampons were in medical use from as early as the 1920s to stop bleeding in deep wounds, and used for women later. We now see these products in widespread use globally, where tampons are the preferred choice of product within Western Europe and the U.S. (Peberdy et al.). Along with this, to get a general idea of what products are being used and how big this industry is, a study reports that, “from 1990s-2000s 50 –86% of women use tampons; 62–73% of women use pads; 75% of women use panty liners; 4–39% of women use feminine sprays; 10–15% of women use feminine wipes; 4% of women use feminine powder; 23% of women use over-the counter anti-itch creams; 15–32% of women douche.” (Scranton). This industry is not only profiting over normal, uncontrollable bodily functions through different products, but making them so profitable that they are not accessible to everyone, while also shaming and creating social norms and judgements for whatever product is more comfortable to each individual.
Risks and Hazards One of the main concerns with these products is how safe popular items, such as tampons and pads, actually are for their intended monthly use over a duration of years. Research suggests that for tampons, about 100 million women around the world use them, and about 11,000 are used within their lifetime (Peberdy et al.), and pad products are even more popular than this. Since these products are going to be used regularly over a duration of years, we have to put our trust into how they are made and what exactly is going into them, since they will be placed in and near a vulnerable, sensitive area. Moreover, one study focuses on what ingredients and chemicals are found within these products, since specifically the skin within a vulva has a high absorption and permeability where anything harmful can be simply absorbed and spread into the body (Chong-Jing and Kurunthachalam). In this study, it was stated that, “DMP, DEP, DBP, DIBP, and DEHP were the major phthalate diesters found in 100% of pads, panty liners, tampons, and wipes, as well as more than one paraben was found in all feminine hygiene products, where overall Pads, panty liners, and tampons accounted for a major share of phthalate, paraben, and bisphenol exposures in American women.”(Chong-Jing and Kurunthachalam). Where another article states that the dioxins and phthalates, which are known carcinogens, within tampons are being linked from their initial production process (Leithe). It is no shock that these chemicals within menstrual products ingredients are harmful and have no purpose of being in or around that area, but when women have no other choice, it then becomes extremely hard to determine the risks and hazards associated with them, even when the results of faulty products are infections, diseases, and organ damage, including kidney, heart, and liver failure (“The Facts on Tampons- and How to Use Them Safely”). From Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction (Robbins et al.), we have to acknowledge this risk as a culture, and how the social norms outweigh the risk involved with these very potentially dangerous products. The text highlights how cultures influence the importance, approaches, and perspectives of some risks, which we see with menstrual products since speaking of a menstrual cycle is still seen as a taboo topic that women should keep to themselves. This socio-cultural “norm” in turn harms women, since there is no room to speak out on this in the first place, resulting in this hazard of ingredients and shady production of personal products deemed not important. As a society we must shift this cultural theory of taboo topics women feel ashamed of, and focus on the actual quality control. Another risk women have to face is the famously known TSS, or Toxic Shock Syndrome. Toxic shock syndrome is defined as a serious disease that involves fever, shock, and problems with several body organs, caused by toxins produced when a tampon is left in for longer durations of time (Toxic shock syndrome). This is one commonly known serious effect of menstrual products that women have to remain mindful of when using, attributing to the risk and hazards of these products and their ingredients. Environmental Ethics Along with the personal health risk from menstruation products, there are also environmental concerns since they are a disposable, one time use product. These products are made to “hold up” for their intended use, however this then becomes an issue when disposing of them. As previously stated, it was estimated that a single woman will more or less use about 11,000 tampons within their lifetime (Peberdy et al.), which directly correlates to 11,000 one use products polluting our environment. When looking at just tampons, they come enclosed in plastic wrapping, a plastic applicator, and the cotton/chemical filled product within. For pads, they are also enclosed in plastic wrapping, adhesive strips and more cotton/ chemically fragranced materials. Just examining these products shows how unsustainable and polluting they are. Further, not only are the plastic components of the product and its packaging known to never completely biodegrade, but research also estimates that specifically, just one pad product can take 500-800 years to breakdown (Peberdy et al.). These one use products end up in landfills, oceans, and alongside with every other single use- polluting product on this planet, where it is stated that, “the Marine Conservation Society reported an increase in sanitary products, including menstrual products and wet wipes, found during beach cleans in 2017, with nine plastic applicators found per km on UK beaches” (Peberdy et al.). As a result of these products increasingly being found on beaches, including locations outside of the U.S, we are starting to see items such as the plastic applicator of tampons, being found inside the stomachs of seabirds (Peberdy et al.). This then further contributes to global environmental issues of one use plastic pollution in oceans and wildlife, where films such as ‘Albatross’ highlight how detrimental one use plastics are, and how they end up in locations far away from where they started, and in the stomachs of seabirds resulting in deaths (“Albatross”). The type of pollution that menstrual products contribute to only worsens this problem, since we can imagine a woman's 11,000 tampons in her lifetime will become a pollutant fate of a seabird, or fish, mistaking it for food. Moreover, since some brands of tampons now contain plastic within them (Peberdy et al.) we can assume that the entire product will be extremely difficult to break down or degrade if given the chance. Microplastics are the reality of what these products face, since one of the main ingredients, Polyethylene is known to breakdown into smaller pieces if introduced to light (Peberdy et al.), which will take a great length of time to do so only resulting in a more polluted planet. From an environmental ethics perspective, these necessary products help women during an uncomfortable time, but also contribute to large amounts of one use waste which eventually results in microplastics, that will continue harming wildlife and the planet as a whole. This then turns into a consideration of what products one should utilize for a more sustainable option, however, cost and availability are clear obstacles that deter women from these choices. Political Economy/Ethics The main factors deterring women from more sustainable options of menstrual products is the initial cost, accessibility, and availability of these products in the first place. Disposable options are extremely cheaper compared to reusables, but looking deeper, a study found that between July of 2017 and March 2018, “64 percent of the women had been unable to afford period products during the previous year and 21 percent experienced this problem on a monthly basis. Almost half had times during the past year when they had to choose between food and period products.” (Carroll). Within the U.S., menstrual products are seen as a “luxury item” that women are expected to pay for and consistently provide for themselves, when they are a basic human need. Women in tight financial situations are having to choose between necessary items, not including homeless women who have to worry about just basic access to these, which not only affects their physical wellbeing of not having them, but their emotional dignity of feeling shamed for not being able to afford these products. On top of this, there is an additional tax on menstruation products in the U.S since they are viewed as a “luxury” where it is reported that 35 states impose this tax (Smith). This is referred to as ‘period poverty’, but has not changed dramatically within the United States because these products are seen as a commodity of profit in our capitalistic society. The market would argue that this is a $15 billion business that cannot be spared for those who cannot access them, and in the eyes of a political economy and Capitalism, creates jobs and contributes to the economy. However, we must acknowledge the ethics behind politicizing and profiting off of a woman's normal bodily functions, and how we determine the importance of money when there are humans suffering from the lack of accessibility of this essential, as well as how we as a society continue to deem this as an issue that is not as important. Further, this issue continues and worsens outside of the U.S., where a study in Uganda schools showed period poverty that affects young women, also affects their school attendance and mental wellbeing, where across the board, all school attendance worsened (Montgomery et al.). In this same study, it was tested what effects would happen when given proper products and education about menstrual cycles and hygiene, which resulted in a 9% increase of school attendance for those receiving pad products and education (Montgomery et al.). From this, we see that period poverty effects on a global scale is better mitigated when given access to products and education, showing a clear issue period poverty creates. Although the cost of menstruation products creates a poverty line that women cannot access, and we see even bigger issues outside of our own country with less accessibility to resources and education, we do see some improvement with this issue in Scotland. Recently, menstruation products were deemed as a necessity to women by Scotish Parliament, that will eliminate the financial barrier and make these products accessible to everyone. In this document, it is stated that tampon and pad products will be obtainable free of charge from local authorities, education providers, specified public service bodies, and public spaces (Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill ). This bill, created by Monica Lennon, aids in the effort of making these products accessible to anyone and everyone, which is important to inclusivity and dignity of women. As well as this, it takes the stress off women who cannot afford, find, or have these products readily available, which takes one less stressful factor out of the equation. By making this a law, Scotland helps everyday women become more comfortable with the subject of menstruation and menstruation products, as well as eliminating period poverty within their country. Further, the U.S could learn from this order and provide for a necessity that is uncontrollable, and normal within a duration of a life. If the United States were to take this same idea and alter it to help aid in environmental pollution from these products by making the more sustainable, reusable products free to women, it would be a step in the right direction of changing the societal views on menstruation as a whole while also providing a necessity to those who need it. Conclusion In conclusion, menstruation products are a seemingly simple, common item whose issues are complex. These products are known to contain chemicals, dioxins, parabens, bleaching, and cause diseases which are physically harming to women and affect their wellbeing. Additionally, these products are a major contributor in global pollution since they are one use disposable items, mainly containing plastics and components known to have issues with biodegradation. Beyond being pollutants, the issue known as ‘period poverty’ is apparent across the world, where the cost of these products makes them unavailable to the majority of women. This then forces those who do not have the means to obtain them, to rely on other unsanitary and unsafe methods of controlling their monthly cycle, which could lead to infectections and other diseases within the genital area. Along with this, societal views on menstruation contribute to the lack of awareness and responsibility of these products, considering this topic is a taboo, which harms solutions to the problems surrounded by them. Overall, if this topic was spoken about more so that there is no uncomfortability for a normal bodily function that women have to deal with their whole lives, it would create an culturally accepting atmosphere that focuses on improvements, sustainability, and accountability for how these products affect women throughout their lives. This one object shows the relationship it has between societies, the economy, and the environment on a global scale revealing issues that the state of the world must become comfortable in addressing to implement needed change.
Works Cited “Albatross.” https://www.albatrossthefilm.com/watch-albatross. Carroll, Linda. “Even in the U.S, poor women can't afford tampons, pads.” Reuters, 10 January 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-menstruation-usa/even-in-the-u-s-poor-women-often-cant-afford-tampons-pads-idUSKCN1P42TX. Accessed 11 December 2020. Chong-Jing, Gao, and Kannan Kurunthachalam. Phthalates, bisphenols, parabens, and triclocarban in feminine hygiene products from the United States and their implications for human exposure. vol. 136, Environment International,2020.ScienceDirect, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019333859. Accessed 10 December 2020. “The Facts on Tampons- and How to Use Them Safely.” U.S. Food & Drug Administration,30September2020, https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/facts-tampons-and-how-use-them-safely#:~:text=The%20toxic%20substance%20produced%20by,declined%20significantly%20over%20the%20years. Accessed 12 December 2020. “Feminine Hygiene Products.” Cosmetics and Personal Care Products in the Medicine and Science Collections, Smithsonian Natural Museum of American History, https://www.si.edu/spotlight/health-hygiene-and-beauty/feminine-hygiene-products. Accessed 10 December 2020. Leithe, Rune. “Why the toxic tampon issue isn't going away.” Environmental paper, 2018, https://environmentalpaper.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/RL_7mars_2018-1.pdf. Accessed 10 December 2020.“Menstruation (Menstruation Cycle, Period).” MedicineNet, 16 September2019, https://www.medicinenet.com/menstruation/article.htm. Accessed 11 December 2020. Montgomery, Paul, et al. “Menstruation and the Cycle of Poverty: A Cluster Quasi-Randomised Control Trial of Sanitary Pad and Puberty Education Provision in Uganda.” Plos One, 21 December 2016, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0166122. Accessed 15 December 2020. Peberdy, Elizabeth, et al. “A Study into Public Awareness of the Environmental Impact of Menstrual Products and Product Choice.” Sustainability 11.2, 17 January 2019, https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/11/2/473/htm. Accessed 10 December 2020. Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill. The Scottish Parliament, 2019, https://beta.parliament.scot/-/media/files/legislation/bills/current-bills/period-products-free-provision-scotland-bill/stage-3/bill-as-passed-period-products-free-provision-scotland-bill.pdf. Accessed 11 December 2020. Robbins, Paul, et al. Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction. Wiley Blackwell, 2014, file:///home/chronos/u-73a7405edc001b929aedf20e17a2d70c3a832c86/MyFiles/School/Environment%20and%20Society%20A%20Critical%20Introduction%20by%20Paul%20Robbins,%20John%20Hintz,%20Sarah%20A.%20Moore%20(z-lib.org).pdf. Accessed 10 December 2020. Scranton, Alexandra. “Potential Health Effects of Toxic Chemicals.” Women's Voices For The Earth, November 2013, http://www.womensvoices.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Chem-Fatale-Report.pdf. Accessed 10 December 2020. Smith, Amy. “The State of Period Poverty in the U.S.” University of Pennsylvania Nursing, https://www.nursing.upenn.edu/live/news/1545-the-state-of-period-poverty-in-the-us. Accessed 11 December 2020. Toxic shock syndrome. MedlinePlus. NIH U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000653.htm. Accessed 11 December 2020.