Scientists raise alarm over presence of toxic metals in tampons

A new study analysed different tampon brands and found that some of them contain lead, zinc, arsenic and cadmium metals.

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  • A new study analysed different tampon brands and found that some of them contain lead, zinc, arsenic and cadmium metals.

In today’s world, women and girls of reproductive age have an array of options when they are on their periods. They either use sanitary towels, tampons or menstrual cups.

Even as period poverty is still a biting concern, those who can afford sanitary products may now have a new concern -especially those who use tampons.

A new study conducted by scientists from the University of California -Berkeley analysed different tampon brands and found that some of them contain lead, zinc, arsenic and cadmium metals.

This is after assessing the levels of 16 different metals in about 30 tampons from 14 brands in the United States, and some from the European Union and the United Kingdom.

The study reveals that all the samples were made in several different countries. However, the US had the largest number but other locations include the Czech Republic, Israel, Mexico, Slovenia, Taiwan and the EU. “Despite this large potential for public health concern, very little research has been done to measure chemicals in tampons,” said lead author Jenni A. Shearston, a postdoctoral scholar at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

 “To our knowledge, this is the first paper to measure metals in tampons,” she added.

 The scientists found zinc in the tampons to have had the highest concentration of a geometric mean that is equal to 52,000 ng/g (nanogram per gram).

The researchers found lead in all the samples tested. “There is no safe exposure level to lead; any proportion of lead that may leach out of a tampon and reach systemic circulation might contribute to negative health outcomes. Lead is stored in bones, where it replaces calcium and can be retained in the body for decades,” shows the study.

They add that lead is associated with numerous adverse neurological, renal, cardiovascular, haematological, immunological, reproductive and developmental effects.

The study shows that inorganic Arsenic, which was also found in the tampons, is known to cause cancer and is associated with heart diseases, dermatitis and other dermal effects, and respiratory and neurological disease.

“One study evaluating the effect of vaginal arsenic exposure through douching in rats found that vaginal Arsenic exposure had effects on oxidative mechanisms in the uterus and ovaries,” explain the researchers.

The scientists explain that there are several routes through which metals can be introduced to tampons, such as during manufacturing.

 “First, the raw materials of cotton, rayon, or viscose may be contaminated during production. Second, tampons may be contaminated with metals from water during the manufacturing process; for example, water in the EU and US is sometimes contaminated with lead,” they explain.

Adding: “Third, metals may also be intentionally added to tampons during manufacturing for various purposes. For example, several metals we detected, including Ca, Co, Cr, Cu, Ni, and Zn, may be added to tampons as antimicrobial agents designed to release from the tampon when it absorbs liquid (menses).” The researchers add that some manufacturers add metals like zinc, strontium and calcium to ease the insertion of tampons, acting as a lubricant.

“The two metals we detected in the highest concentrations, Ca and Zn, are used for odour control, lubrication and as antimicrobial agents, perhaps explaining why we observed them in such high concentrations,” they explain.

While doing their analysis, they found out that packaging frequently did not outrightly say from where the raw ingredients were sourced.

“For several US-made tampons, the packaging stated “made in USA with global ingredients,” making it impossible to know where the raw materials were sourced,” they show.

“Although toxic metals are ubiquitous and we are exposed to low levels at any given time, our study clearly shows that metals are also present in menstrual products and that women might be at higher risk for exposure using these products,” said study co-author Kathrin Schilling, assistant professor at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

The lead author says it would be exciting to see the public call for this, or to ask for better labelling on tampons and other menstrual products.

“I really hope that manufacturers are required to test their products for metals, especially for toxic metals,” said Shearston.

“Although our study found the presence of toxic metals in tampons, future studies are necessary to assess whether metals can leach out of tampons and become bioaccessible for vaginal absorption. Thus, we cannot speculate on potential harm to the health of menstruators,” shows the study.