What's in your pad or tampon?

Story highlights

  • FDA doesn't require manufacturers to disclose tampon ingredients
  • In the past few weeks, both P&G and Kimberly-Clark have published additional information on their websites

(CNN)About 70% of all American women use tampons. On average, a woman will use between 11,000 and 16,000 tampons in her lifetime.

In fact, tampon-like devices have been used since ancient Rome, where women fashioned devices out of wool to absorb menstrual flow. Rolls of grass were used in parts of Africa, and Hawaiian women used ferns.
But what is actually in a modern-day tampon and pads?
    Generally, tampons are blends of cotton and rayon, along with synthetic fibers, but each manufacturer's products are different and considered proprietary.
    Consumer groups in the United States have been wanting to know more since the 1980s. A growing environmental movement and awareness about toxic shock syndrome prompted women to ask what was in these products because manufacturers weren't required to fully disclose what goes into a tampon or pad. That's because they are regulated and approved as medical devices by the Food and Drug Administration and full disclosure is not required.
    Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York has introduced legislation nine times since 1997 that would require manufacturers to be more transparent and disclose the complete makeup of tampons, pads, and other feminine hygiene products. She wants companies to clearly label not only the fabrics used, but also any contaminants, fragrances, colorants, dyes and preservatives. Her bill directs the National Institutes of Health to look at the health effects of these products, because, she says, there is little research in this area.
    But her bill has failed to move beyond the floor, every time.

    Demands for more transparency

    Last month, members of the consumer group Women's Voices for the Earth dressed up as boxes of tampons and pads and protested in front of Procter & Gamble's corporate headquarters. They held up signs that said, "My uterus loves accurate labels."
    According to market research group Euroshare, P&G is the largest manufacturers of feminine products, with 44% of the United States market share. Women's Voices for the Earth wants manufacturers such as P&G to fully disclose what goes into tampons, sanitary pads and wipes.
    "Our concerns of the care products ... was out of the lack of ingredient disclosure," said Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research for Women's Voices for the Earth. The group has been leading a two-year campaign it calls "Detox the Box."
    When the group tested P&G's Always pads, it found the sanitary napkins emitted chemicals, like styrene, chloroethane and chloroform. The World Health Organization classifies styrene as a carcinogen. And the EPA says short-term exposure to high concentrations of chloromethane can have neurological effects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says high levels of exposure to chloroethane can result in lack of muscle coordination and unconsciousness.
    However, all the levels are accpetable under federal regulations. In a statement, Women's Voices for the Earth said, "While the levels of the toxic chemicals emitted by Always pads were relatively low, their presence warrants health concerns for women."
    Tonia Elrod, a P&G spokeswoman, said the company hasn't seen the complete study, but pointed out that these are naturally occurring chemicals found in the ambient air, and that the study did not measure the composition in their product.
    Tucker Helmes, executive director of the Center for Baby and Adult Hygiene Products, an industry trade group, said there should be no concern about these chemicals. "There is more styrene in strawberries than there is in the air sample they measured in this study," said Helmes.
    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the industry, reviews all designs and materials. In May, the organization addressed concerns, responding to Internet allegations, which alleged that tampons are contaminated by asbestos and dioxin, which can lead to toxic shock syndrome.
    The agency said, "The available scientific evidence does not support these rumors."

    Manufacturers release more information

    In the past few weeks, both P&G, maker of Always pads and Tampax tampons, and Kimberly-Clark, maker of Kotex tampons and pads, have published additional information on their websites.
    But microbiologist Philip Tierno of the New York University School of Medicine said that's not enough. "Even if they list some ingredients, they may not be listing all of them."
    Tierno was one of the scientists who helped discover the link betw