Even though they concern half of the world’s population, menstruation topics are a taboo around the globe. We don’t often talk about female hygiene products. However, disposable sanitary napkins and tampons come with tremendous costs for both the female body and the ecosystem. In recent years, re-usable female hygiene products have gained popularity. Jessamijn Miedema co-founded the social enterprise Eco Femme, based in Auroville, South-India in 2010. The all female change-maker team not only produce re-usable napkins. They also dedicate their work to lifting the issue out of the taboo zone by working with students in schools.
In how far do you think taboos around menstruation contribute to the popularity of throw-away solutions for female hygiene products around the world?
Taboos around menstruation are present all over the world. They are not limited to developing countries by any means. A former Eco Femme volunteer recently wrote an article about menstrual taboos in Europe and India. There is already a lot of shyness and embarrassment around menstruation which advertising companies worldwide often prey on to sell their disposable products. Products named ‘Whisper’ for example, hint at something not to be spoken about. In India, menstrual products are often wrapped in brown paper once purchased in the shop to keep them hidden and to avoid embarrassment.
Disposable products are seen as convenient because they can be discarded after use which stops women from having to deal with the embarrassment that others might notice she is menstruating. Reusable pads require drying. And while hanging on a washing line they might be seen by family members or neighbours, a horrifying and embarrassing idea for many women around the globe. If societies, both in the East and West, embraced menstruation as a normal part of a woman’s life it would certainly make using re-usable female hygiene products easier.
What do you consider the biggest problems around menstruation and hygiene products?
The biggest problem worldwide seems to be lack of information on the topic. In India, many women and girls are simply not taught about this basic bodily function. Often taboos, superstitions and misinformation are passed on from mother to daughter and so on. Wealthier women, see disposable products, which are more costly, as a status symbol. Women in poorer areas use unhygienic materials such as ash, soil or dirty rags to manage their flow. Many still use folded cloth which in itself is fine provided that it is washed and dried well. We’ve learned that often these rags are dried under the bed or in the thatched roof. Drying like this can lead to infections, rashes and worse!
Developed countries have better education on the biology of puberty and menstruation but often fail to give information of the full range of products available and their pros and cons. There can also be a lack of accessibility to reusable products when every supermarket stocks disposable products.
What is the cost of disposable menstrual products to women’s bodies?
Most pads have a top layer that feels like cloth but is in fact a plastic woven sheet. Plastic wings and adhesives as well as super-absorbent polymer gels that soak up the flow are comprised of plastics. Most tampon brands come with plastic applicators and are made of non-organic cotton. Most major brands of tampons and pads contain non-organic cotton or wood pulp grown using agrochemicals and pesticides as well as synthetic fragrances, odor neutralizers and other potentially hazardous ingredients
The hazardous nature of chemicals are cause for concern that calls for further research. The World Health Organization, WHO, classifies dioxins as a highly toxic environmental pollutant and health risk. Dioxins are produced in chlorine bleaching processes. A possible link to cancers, endometriosis, immune system depression and pelvic inflammatory disease has been established. Chemicals often used in hygene products and their wrapping, notably Biosphenol-A (BPA) and its substitute Biophenol-S (BPS) disrupt embryonic development and are linked to heart disease and cancer. Phthalates, plasticizers added to make plastic flexible, are known to disregulate gene expression. Plastic softener DEHP may lead to multiple organ damage. The call for further research to reduce on health risks to women from dioxin and other chemicals has been raised in the US Tampon Safety Act and Robin Danielson Act since 1999. The US Endometriosis Association indicated to use organic cotton sanitary products without plastics until research addresses the risks.
Synthetics and plastic also restrict the free flow of air, can trap heat and dampness, potentially promoting the growth of yeast and bacteria in the vaginal area, a possible cause for vaginitis.
What is the cost to nature?
Most disposable menstrual products consist almost entirely of non-biodegradable plastic. The bleaches, adhesives and fragrances used in manufacturing the products also release pollutants into the environment. Along with the problem of non-biodegradable plastic accumulating in landfills, disposable menstrual products create havoc when flushed down the toilet. Finding their way into seas and rivers, they cause severe problems for marine life. Disposable pads and plastic tampon applicators frequently wash up on beaches throughout the world. Research has shown that each conventional sanitary pad contains the equivalent of about four plastic bags! According to a study by the UK-based packaging materials company down2earth it takes 500-800 years for sanitary napkins (and diapers) to decompose.
In India, when pads are flushed down the toilet, sanitation workers have to descend into manholes to remove and handle used menstrual products from sewer blockages, public toilets, household trash, or even the roadside. Workers carry out these tasks often without protective clothing, gloves or masks. This puts them at risk of contracting infections with potentially deadly viruses or diseases. You can read more on these issues in research done by the sustainability consultants earth&us in their article “Disposable pads, disposable lives.”
In many parts of the world, disposable menstrual products are burned by individuals or in incinerators along with other waste. This causes dioxins and other chemicals to be released which creates toxic ash and fumes. We published our research on this: “Breaking the silence on the incineration of menstrual hygiene waste.”
What solution do you offer?
Our goal is to create environmental and social change through revitalising menstrual practices that are healthy, environmentally sustainable, culturally responsive and empowering for women around the world. We produce and sell washable cloth pads, provide menstrual health education to adolescents and women, and open dialogues on menstruation all along the way. Our washable cloth pads are made of cotton and promote well-being through the whole menstrual cycle, as well as being affordable and beautiful too.
What educational and research projects are you running?
We offer educational sessions to school girls as part of our Pad for Pad program. With each pad sold outside of India, the cost of another pad is donated to this program and cloth pads kits are offered freely as a choice at the end of an educational session. The set covers menstrual health, hygiene, different products and their impact on the environment, cycle tracking and natural ways of caring for the body during menstruation.
Our program for rural women is called Pads for Sisters. Pads are offered at a heavily subsidised rate ensuring they are affordable for women to buy them for themselves.
Both Pad for Pad and Pads for Sisters are programs we directly implement as well as with a growing network of partners across India.
In addition to these specific programs, we guide facilitators in how to promote healthy and environmentally sustainable menstrual practices in their community, offer advice and consultancy to organisations around the world concerned with sustainable menstrual practices, constantly research into menstrual hygiene pedagogy and advocate for non-polluting menstrual practices through writing, film-making and speaking to groups whenever we can!
For further information:
- “Chem Fatale” Report published by the US-based women’s organization Women’s Voices for the Earth in 2013.
- “What’s Hiding in Always Pads?” Findings of the testing of four types of Always menstrual pads, manufactured by Procter & Gamble. Commissioned by Women’s Voices for the Earth in August 2014.
- “Disposable tampons aren’t sustainable, but do women want to talk about it?” (published in the Guardian on April 27, 2015)
- “Aus der Rolle gefallen” Study conducted by the Germany product testing institution for ecological issues “Ökotest” on carcinogenic ingredients in tampons in 2009 – in German.
- “Dioxines and their effect on Human Health” ( WHO Factsheet, updated October 2016)
- “BPA Is Fine if You Ignore Most Studies for It” (Published on the health website www.mercola.com, March 25, 2015)
- “Phthalates are everywhere, and the health risks are worrying. How bad are they really?” (Published in the Guardian on February 10, 2015)
- “Europe Calls TDEHP One of the Top 6 Chemical Threats to Humans…” (Published on the health website www.mercola.com, June 24, 2011)
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