Okay, let's get right down to it: society at large doesn't seem to be too comfortable talking about menstruation. Commercials on television often depict womyn proudly concealing their tampons in their smallest pocketbook or just generally trying to hide the fact that it's their time to bleed. Goddess forbid if anyone knows it's "that time of the month." In addition, the major manufacturers of tampons and pads are out to make money, not to protect our health or the health of our planet. So it isn't surprising that living in an alternative community of ecologically and feminist-minded individuals, I have heard and seen a very different approach taken to issues surrounding our monthly rite than will ever be addressed on your local television station.
What's wrong with most mainstream-marketed tampons and pads?
Environmental issues: It is estimated that over 7 billion tampons and 12 billion pads (and their packaging waste) are disposed of annually! They are typically manufactured using rayon and non-organic cotton that is chlorine bleached. Production of rayon (a wood-pulp derivative) causes pollution. So does conventional cotton production, which uses synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and defoliants.
Health issues: Aside from the cotton potentially containing trace pesticides, etc. tampons have been found to contain trace levels of dioxin. Dioxin is produced as a by-product of the chlorine bleaching process. Dioxin is a known carcinogen that is linked to endometriosis and ovarian, cervical and breast cancers, among other things.
As if that isn't scary enough, the rayon fibers in tampons are linked to Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS.) TSS is life-threatening and is caused by a bacteria build-up in the blood stream. Rayon is commonly used by tampon manufactures because it has super-absorbent characteristics, the same characteristic that causes health problems. Due to its super-absorbency, some of the fibers tend to get left behind by sticking to the vaginal walls. There they dry out the normally mucous-y vaginal wall leaving tiny wounds--doorways for bacteria into the bloodstream. Rayon does not discriminate with its super-absorbent quality: it holds bacteria just as well as bodily fluids, hence the link to TSS. While these health risks are far greater for tampon users than pad users, dioxin and rayon are both present in pads as well.
Cost issues: Tampons and pads are expensive! Womyn, individually, easily spend between $300 and $400 every 5 years on these products--over $10,000 a life-time! That's $10,000+ going to major corporate polluters.
What are other options?
There has been many a conversation about creating a menstrual hut at Dancing Rabbit, a sacred space where womyn can go to bleed freely. Menstrual huts are common in many native traditions. Womyn were often required by their culture to seclude themselves during their period and the menstrual hut was a place that they would retreat to. Whether or not it was meant to be a positive experience is up for debate. This is among the more radical options that I have had the experience of contemplating. Since I can not usually take a week to go retreat while I bleed, here are some other (more self-contained?) options:
The Keeper: Ahh the Keeper! I am so pleased with the mere existence of this device. It's a menstrual cup that sits inside the vaginal canal and catches menstrual fluid with the help of a little gentle suction. (You insert it by folding it and when it unfolds inside you it creates a vacuum.) It's made of natural gum rubber and costs between $30 and $40. It comes in two sizes: Size A for after vaginal child birth and Size B for womyn who have not given birth. It will last for at least 10 years, can be left in overnight or longer, and if worn properly should be so comfortable that one may not be able to tell that they are wearing it. The keeper can hold an ounce of fluid and should be emptied when necessary. (To put this in context, most womyn produce about 3 ounces of blood per cycle.). Cost-effective. Environmentally friendly (gum trees are tapped, not cut down, for their production.) And creates no monthly waste products. This is by far my favorite option. Check out www.keeper.com [editor's note: another similar product here: www.divacup.com] for more information or to order one!
Note: I believe the keeper made me more vulnerable to yeast infections when I first started using it--it may have been psychosomatic--but I started boiling it once a month, before I first use it that cycle, and I haven't had a problem since.
Reusable cotton menstrual pads: Also available on the internet and in health food stores, or easily homemade with a little flannel, a sewing machine and a touch of creative ingenuity. These pads are machine washable and are even available in organic cotton. Similar environmental benefits and cost savings as the Keeper. Prices vary, as well do styles, so shop around--even on the net. (Gladrags are a popular brand that offers pads in organic cotton. Check out their website at www.gladrags.com)
Sea sponge: Natural sponge from the ocean. Available in wooly and silky varieties. Cost between $2-4 per sponge. I have not personally tried them, but I know several womyn who have. It is recommended that you disinfect them with a tablespoon of vinegar in a cup of warm water (although doctors recommend boiling for 5 minutes.) One will last for at least several months and a womyn would probably need at least two to get her through her cycle (so that she may disinfect one while using the other.) Some womyn buy one and then immediately cut it in half--this may work well depending on the size of the sponge and how heavy your flow is. There may be environmental impacts from using the sponge if they are not sustainably harvested. One website, www.jadeandpearl.com, claims that their sponges are not obtained from the polluted waters of the Mediterranean and are sustainably harvested. If you prefer mail order try the Community Pharmacy at (608) 251-3242.
Organic dioxin-free (oxygen-bleached) rayon-free cotton tampons: What I prefer to call "whole-wheat tampons." Better for the environment and our health. Available at your local health food store or co-op. These tampons are relatively expensive-- about $5 per box of 20. Two brand names that I am familiar with are Natracare and Organic Essentials.
So there you have it! May you flow in good health and eco-consciousness.
For more info:
Written by Sol Mund
Dancing Rabbit Newsletter,Spring 2001
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