Traditionally, women all over the world have used cloth to handle their monthly menstrual flow. These days, however, disposable menstrual products have become commonplace in many countries and are now gaining popularity around the world. Promoted for their convenience, these products are seen as a step towards women’s liberation and modernity, however disposable menstrual products come with immense health, environmental, and human costs.
What are some of the health issues for women who use disposable products?
Women who use disposable menstrual products risk exposure to:
Residual pesticides – Most major brands of tampons and pads contain cotton or wood pulp grown using agrochemicals.
Dioxins – The chlorine bleaching process used to whiten products produces dioxin, which has been linked to various forms of cancer, immune system suppression, endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease. The World Health Organization classifies them as a highly toxic environmental pollutant. You can read more about dioxins in sanitary pads at Natra Care and Women’s Voices for the Earth.
Plastic, plastic, plastic – Most pads have a top layer that feels like cloth but is in fact a plastic woven sheet, plastic wings and adhesives, and Super-absorbent polymer gels—that soak up the flow—which are comprised of plastics; most tampon brands come with plastic applicators…not to mention the wrappers!
The vagina and vulva have some of the most absorbent tissues of our bodies; this means that any and all toxins present in menstrual products are easily and quickly absorbed into the body.
What are the environmental costs?
There is no ‘away’ – The plastics and components of disposable products are largely non-biodegradable, presenting huge waste management challenges around the world. A single pad is estimated to take 500—800 years to decompose; disposed sanitary products fill landfills and in communities and countries without waste management systems they pollute water bodies, communal toilets, and roadsides.
Burning releases environmental toxins – In many parts of the world, disposable menstrual products are burned along with other waste; this causes dioxins and other chemicals to be released and creates toxic ash and fumes. Read more on this in our blog post Breaking the silence on the incineration of menstrual hygiene waste.
The AMOUNT is HUGE – The products we use add up. If only a quarter of India’s menstruating adolescent girls alone used disposable pads, 90 million would be disposed or burned every month alone.
Read more on the Women’s Environmental Network.
What are the human costs?
In the Indian sanitation and plumbing systems, it is not uncommon for sanitation workers to descend into manholes to remove sewer blockages and to handle used menstrual products when removing them from public toilets, household trash, or even the roadside.
In contravention to existing laws, these workers, who are all members of lower (‘untouchable’) castes, are given no protection for doing this work. All tasks are done without protective clothing, gloves or masks. This puts the workers at the risk of contracting infections or even deadly viruses or diseases.
You can read more on these issues in the earth&us blog post, Disposable pads, Disposable Lives.
To learn more about chemicals hiding in leading name-brand sanitary pads and the environmental impact of them, check out and share the following documents:
Consider switching to a reusable menstrual product.
Your body, community, and earth will thank you.