Ms. Tampon Goes to Washington: The Dioxin Controversy
Of all the things you might have thought would be cancer-causing,
tampons probably wasn't one of them. However, unresolved
concerns about a chemical called dioxin, its levels in tampons, and
its potential to cause female cancers are being addressed on a
The Tampon Safety and Research Act of 1997
This piece of legislation was intended to clear up the issue. The
research showing no dioxin or acceptable levels of dioxins in
tampons were done by the manufacturers themselves. Doing a
study and concluding that something doesn't exist is pretty easy,
since all you have to do is do a poor job of looking for it. This
legislation demanded independent studies be done, and more
pointed inquiry so as to not miss what might be there. The study
was broad reaching. All menstrual products (pads and tampons)
were covered. All types of ingredients were covered too
(fragrances, absorbency enhancers, fillers). And it looked at any
disease, not just cancers.
What's the logic of behind this?
Most tampons are made of rayon. Rayon is made from cellulose
and fibers of wood. The processing from raw materials includes
chlorine bleaching which is known to produce dioxin. The makers
say they wash it all away. Critics say they don't.
Dioxin is a type of chlorine called an organochlorine.
Organochlorines are similar in physical structure to sex hormones.
It is believed by some (mostly environmentalists) that they can
mimic the effects of sex hormones. Exposure to environmental
organochlorines may cause an increase in sex-related health
problems because it is like taking a huge dose of hormones.
Gender related cancers, decreased fertility, even
endometriosis and birth defects have been blamed on dioxin.
Immune disorders are also tied to dioxin. The vaginal wall tissue is
very capable of absorbing substances that it comes in contact
with. Dioxins can be stored in the body and can accumulate over
time. The majority of women use tampons for years on end. All this
raised the question of whether or not tampons could deliver a dose
of dioxin large enough to cause disease to women.
The FDA Statement and Its Opponents
The FDA updated its report on the issue in response to concerns
expressed on the Internet (what do you know, you are being
heard!). It reported that the bleaching process for producing dioxin
was no longer being used. It avoids the question of why this was
changed if the dioxin was being washed away as claimed. Two
other processes, it claims, are dioxin-free. Furthermore, it stated
that the discontinued process produced only one dioxin molecule
out of three trillion. These results were obtained through a study
process dictated by the FDA, but ultimately performed by the
companies themselves. This level, the FDA said, was not gong to
The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) says that there is no
acceptable level of dioxin exposure. Sen. Carolyn Maloney, the
woman who started the Tampon Act, states that the switch to
chlorine-free processing is not universal.
What are the gaps in information?
Obviously, measurement of the levels of dioxin produced by the old
bleaching process needs to be done a bit more objectively.
Millions of women have already been exposed to whatever level
that is. The new bleaching methods need to be evaluated
objectively as well for claims of "chlorine-free" tampons. The
method that each product uses needs to be made available to the
Most importantly, we need to determine safe levels, if any, for
dioxin exposure in women. Most studies of dioxin were on men.
Research already shows significant gender differences in
response to exposure. Given the sex hormone mimicking
properties of this substance, this is bound to be a major issue. The
unique circumstances of membranous absorption (vaginal and
vulvar), women's metabolism and storage of dioxin, its effect on
our susceptibility to gynecological cancers and dysfunctions, and
immune diseases, and the effects of up to 40 years exposure are
all unanswered questions.
What to Do in the Meantime
Needless to say, the average woman must make decisions on incomplete information. If this bothers you, your options include cloth pads, unprocessed pads and tampons, and menstrual caps (which can also double as birth control). These can often be ordered off the Internet.
If you are far too busy to give up grabbing your brand off the shelf at the local drugstore over "maybes," here are some factors to rest your mind. Most dioxins that humans have been exposed to are through employment working with them or contaminated foods. These levels are much higher than what is being batted about here, even if the companies low-balled the figures. The ties of dioxins to cancer or disease are not clear-cut, they are speculative and circumstantial at this point. Even with significant exposures, most people do not get cancer.
Keep your eyes and ears open for updates. Sen. Maloney plans to have public hearings and further independent research on this issue in the upcoming term. And if it bugs you, write lots and lots of newsgroup posts, since the FDA is paying attention!