Toxic Tampons: First Of Its Kind Study Finds Heavy Metals In Tampons

Another day, another reason to be low-key worried about our vaginas. Scientists from U.C. Berkeley, Columbia University, and Michigan State University recently published the findings of what they believe to be the first-ever study on the presence of metals and metalloids (an element with properties somewhere between metals and solid nonmetals) in tampons.

Troublingly, out of the 16 substances the team tested for — including lead, arsenic, and mercury — all were present. So go ahead and add “toxic tampons” to your ever-growing list of worries. (But also, don’t panic just yet.)

Tampons as we know and love them today have been around for almost 100 years. In that time, very few scientists have looked into what’s in them. In fact, this study, which was lead by Jenni A. Shearston, a postdoctoral scholar at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, & Management, identified just 15 studies that examined the presence of other chemicals in tampons and none that specifically tested for metal(loid)s.

“There’s been this historical taboo around menstruation,” she told TODAY regarding the study. “That doesn’t just impact us in our social lives. It also impacts scientific research, and I think it’s one of the reasons we haven’t had as much research on menstrual products.”

Is this information shocking? Absolutely. Surprising? Not really; honestly this sort of tracks when it comes to health issues that will primarily affect women.

Different metal(loid)s do different things to the human body. But broadly speaking, overexposure to metals have been known to increase the risk of neurological ailments like brain fog and dementia, as well as cancer and infertility. They can also do serious, irreversible damage to vital organs like the liver, kidneys, and brain, as well as affect the endocrine and nervous systems.

The team tested for 16 different metal(loid)s — arsenic, barium, calcium, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, copper, iron, mercury, manganese, nickel, lead, selenium, strontium, vanadium, and zinc — in 30 tampons. Purchased in the United States, United Kingdom, European Union and from two major online retailers, 14 brands and 18 product lines were examined.

While there was a difference between organic tampons and inorganic tampons, no category had consistently lower concentrations of all or most metals. Lead concentrations, for example, were higher in non-organic tampons, but arsenic levels were higher in organic tampons.

The researchers note that these metals can get into the tampons unintentionally through “natural” processes (cotton that will become a tampon growing in soil contaminated by lead, for example) or intentionally as part of the manufacturing process (zinc, for example, might be added as an antimicrobial agent).

While it is important to note that scientists did not study whether bodies absorb these metal(loid)s in levels that could affect a menstruating person’s health, there is indeed reason to be concerned: the vagina is lined with epithelial tissue, which absorbs chemicals and other compounds without metabolizing them through the liver. Considering the average menstruating person can reasonably use more than 7,000 tampons over the course of their life, offering thousands of opportunities for prolonged exposure, the question of whether these metal(loid)s might leach into the body is a potent one.

Where do we go from here?

“I really hope that manufacturers are required to test their products for metals, especially for toxic metals,” Shearston said in a statement. “It would be exciting to see the public call for this, or to ask for better labeling on tampons and other menstrual products.”

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