A RIGHT TO A HEALTHY MENSTRUATION?
In the week where the UN Human Rights Council recognised that we have a right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Wen wonders how this will happen if we don’t have a right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable period? Because lack of access to clean, safe, and sustainable menstrual products not only harms us, it also harms the environment. It seems pretty fundamental!
When I first started to campaign on this issue for Wen over 25 years ago, I was still menstruating myself. The menstruation campaign was calling for safer period products, promoting reusables, and working with the Alice Kilvert Tampon Alert to raise awareness about Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). Wen also initiated the Bag and Bin it campaign which was picked up by water companies. Working on the campaign not only taught me how to love my period, but it also opened my eyes to the impacts period products were having on our health and the health of the environment.
As with many of the issues Wen campaigns on – menstruation is multifaceted. The decades of advertising by period product manufacturers, along with the cultural and gender prejudices have reinforced the stigma and taboos around menstruation which has had very serious impacts.
Our caption competition with Natracare explored the foundation stones planted by the mainstream Period Product Manufacturers (PPMs) adverts about ‘menstrual odour’ and other stigmatising myths around menstruation. A practice they now disown having co-opted feminist discourses and the energies of menstrual activism, with which they seek to rebrand their own previous sexist advertising.
48% of girls in the UK are embarrassed about their periods.
So, given this foundation, it’s no surprise – 48% of girls in the UK are embarrassed about their periods.
This embarrassment harms women, girls and people who menstruate and the environment. It also prevented 37% of girls from getting active in school last year, up from 27% in 2018-19.
For sure, this is part of a wider social and economic problem with impacts from social media playing a part. But that embarrassment may also mean 2 billion period products are flushed down UK toilets each year. Perhaps in an attempt to hide the fact of menstruation and distance ourselves from our menstrual blood as quickly as possible.
15% of 18–24-year-olds claimed they felt pressured to conceal the ‘smell’ of their periods.
Embarrassment also means that in a new survey by Natracare and Wen, 15% of 18–24-year-olds claimed they felt pressured to conceal the ‘smell’ of their periods. This same age group were the ones most targeted by social media adverts for fragranced intimate products.
Fragrance can be unnecessarily added to period products such as pads and panty liners to cover the ‘smell’ of our menstrual blood. And the use of ‘odour controlling technologies’ is widespread. Not that we are allowed to know what is in these additives. Both are unnecessary as the vagina has a wonderful natural function of being self cleaning.
Wen believes it’s time for regulation specifically for period products, in order to ensure transparency and safety.
The PPMs and their products are virtually unregulated with only the General Product Safety Regulations (which doesn’t specifically mention period products) or voluntary codes (which don’t work) to ensure safety and sustainability in the UK.
42% of women who menstruated were concerned about the presence of harmful chemicals in period products.
At the start of Environmenstrual Week 2021 Wen and Natracare launched a petition calling for greater transparency and legislation for all period products. This legislation should address all aspects of menstruation from period poverty to sustainability and waste management but most importantly – that all period products including reusables should be safe to use for us, and the environment.
And transparency is popular! In a YouGov survey conducted by Natracare and Wen, 85% of respondents want full ingredient transparency. And this was echoed by an industry report citing 42% of women who menstruated were concerned about the presence of harmful chemicals in period products.
It’s worth acknowledging that the only reason we know about the presence of potentially harmful chemicals in period products is because of the testing done by independent organisations and NGOs. Some of the chemicals found are intentionally added, some not. A handy list of all the testing done can be found here thanks to WVE (Women’s Voices for the Earth).
Period pads can contain as much plastic as 5 plastic bags
Although many of these chemicals and residues may be present in small amounts, it’s the cumulative and combined nature of these residues that is of concern.
THE FULL PICTURE
The United Nations Environment Programme Life Cycle Analysis report says that we do not have a full picture about how these chemicals in period products are impacting our health or environment because they are not considered in Life Cycle Analyses (LCA) or the effects are underestimated.
There are gaps in the data on the identity and quantities of chemicals used, as well as gaps in the ability of LCA models to describe the effects arising from the toxicity of these chemicals when they get into the environment.
This could all be addressed by regulation, and greater transparency from the PPMs.
It also is worth remembering that the vagina is a very absorbent place, drugs can effectively be administered through there and it is capable of absorbing chemicals without processing them.
ENDOCRINE DISRUPTING CHEMICALS
Despite reassurances from period product manufacturers (PPMs) that any chemical residues found in period products are ‘at safe levels’. We know there are no safe levels for Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) they can disrupt our endocrine system, which is the body’s messenger system for all aspects of life and we are not just exposed via period products. There are multiple products we use daily that can contain EDCs for example through our use of cosmetics and personal care products, from certain plastics and food packaging, and also through the work we do ie those working with plastics, cleaning products or as firefighters.
These chemicals, even at low concentrations and in combination, can trigger reactions in the body which increases the risk of cancers such as breast and prostate, obesity, reproductive and developmental and neurological disorders, and diabetes. They can also be passed transgenerationally so we also need to consider what our grandmothers have been exposed to.
Studies have questioned the effectiveness of silver particles, showing that 60% of the silver is washed out after only 10 washes or that it provides no protection initially.
THE PURSUIT OF INNOVATION
And unfortunately, in the rush for innovation some reusables are also replicating this need to address the mythical menstrual odour adding antimicrobials such as nanosilver to their products. And no it’s not like vagina glitter, it is basically very tiny pieces of silver which can pass through the skin and accumulate in the body causing allergic reactions. It is also very toxic to fish and other aquatic life and has been steadily building up in the environment since added to clothing. Studies have questioned the effectiveness of silver particles, showing that 60% of the silver is washed out after only 10 washes or that it provides no protection initially.
While there are obviously big advantages to reducing menstrual waste by using reusables they absolutely should not contain these potentially harmful chemicals. They just need to be safer.
Gynaecologists and Obstetricians are on the front line of hearing about health impacts from period products. In a statement to support Wen’s work on menstruation, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) said: “The onus on addressing the toxic ingredients and plastic that is still contained within many period products is on the companies that sell these products and on the Government. For those women and girls who can, we encourage them to consider the choices they make when deciding which period products to use, and to do their best to make healthy and eco-friendly choices, but these must also suit their lifestyle and should not create barriers for them.” (**Read the full statement below)
- Enact specific legislation on all period products to ensure safety, affordability, and transparency throughout the life cycle. Legislation needs to be linked to the UK Chemicals Strategy in relation to chemicals, waste, and plastic.
- Publish all period product tests results on PPM websites and all ingredients printed on period product packaging.
- Remove all tax on period products including on reusables items such as period pants.
- Provide reusable and safe disposable products and facilities in all schools, colleges, and universities and include straightforward information on how to use, dispose or wash products if needed.
- Adopt a more period positive approach to menstruation in education to combat cultural taboos and stigma and make the connections with sustainable development and impacts on climate change.
What you can do:
Sign the Wen and Natracare petition
Choose organic and reusable period products – check out Wen’s discount codes
Lobby your MP – send them our open letter (link to follow)
Write, tweet or IG period product manufacturers to ask them what exactly is in their products.
Contact supermarkets to ask them to provide more choice, less fragranced products, more reusables.
Call for the removal of ‘tampon tax’ from period pants
If you have children in schools, make sure the schools are part of the english government scheme for free period products and that they also provide reusables with facilities for pupils to use them confidentially.
RCOG statement on period products and the environment **
RCOG supports the Women’s Environmental Network’s campaign to make healthy, eco-friendly period products available to all, and to improve education about the hidden plastic and chemicals in many menstrual products.
We are clear that the priority must always remain ensuring all women and girls have access to period products and never face barriers to taking part in education, work or social occasions because they cannot afford period products. Period poverty remains a significant problem in the UK, with research by Plan International UK showing that nearly half of girls have missed an entire day of school because of their period.
The onus on addressing the toxic ingredients and plastic that is still contained within many period products is on the companies that sell these products and on the Government. For those women and girls who can, we encourage them to consider the choices they make when deciding which period products to use, and to do their best to make healthy and eco-friendly choices, but these must also suit their lifestyle and should not create barriers for them. We are clear that pressure must not be put on individuals, especially those who already struggle to access period products.
This article was written by Helen Lynn, Health Adviser and Environmenstrual Campaign Manager
HELEN LYNN, HEALTH ADVISER
Helen was Wen’s Health Campaign Coordinator, helped found the Alliance for Cancer Prevention and No More Breast Cancer Campaign. Helen sits on the advisory board of Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF).