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Asbestos in Tampons

Netlore Archive: False email rumor claims brand-name tampons are purposely made with asbestos fibers 'to make women bleed'

As I have all too frequently had occasion to observe in this pages, forwarded email is hardly the most reliable of information sources. There's a corollary to that, namely that forwarded email is also an unreliable means of disseminating information. Our current specimen of Netlore illustrates the point.

An email alert began circulating in August 1998, authored by a source unkown, warning of an alleged health threat to women from residual dioxin deposited in tampon fibers as a result of chemical bleaching during manufacture. Some recipients suspected it of being a hoax, because it bore several of the usual markers -- it was unsigned, it urged recipients to re-send it far and wide, and the information contained in it, if true, was frightening:

Subject: Important information for Women]



"A friend of mine getting her Ph.D. at University of Colorado, Boulder, sent this to me. Read on if you value your health... I am writing this because women are not being informed about the dangers of something most of us use: tampons.

I'm taking a class this month, and I have been learning a lot about biology and the woman, including much about feminine hygiene. Recently we have learned that tampons are actually dangerous (for other reasons than TOXIC SHOCK SYNDROME).

Read on if you're interested, if not, that's fine too. But I'll tell you this -- after learning about this in our class, most of the females wound up feeling angry and upset with the tampon industry, and I for one, am going to do something about it. To start, I want to inform everyone I can, and email is the fastest way that I know how."

HERE'S THE SCOOP: Tampons contain two things that are potentially harmful: Rayon (for absorbency) and dioxin (a chemical used in bleaching the products). The tampon industry is convinced that we, as women, need bleached white. They seem to think that we view the product as pure and clean.

The problem here is that the dioxin produced in this bleaching process can lead to very harmful problems for a woman. Dioxin is potentially carcinogenic (cancer causing) and is toxic to the immune and reproductive system. It has been linked to endometriosis as well as lower sperm counts for men----for both, it breaks down the immune system....

[ Full text]

It's ironic that this early version of the message was greeted with suspicion, because although its claims were controversial, they were not patently false; although its tone was alarmist, the author's intent was apparently sincere. Nor does it fit the profile of a typical hoax in certain other ways. For one, the text contains references to verifiable outside sources. For another, it doesn't stop at making scary assertions; it goes on to suggest solutions and a course of action.

On the other hand, it's hard to blame people for being disinclined to take it seriously. Anyone who's had past experience with forwarded alerts of this kind knows that they're rarely authentic. Disbelieving it was a perfectly rational response. Assuming the message's author really did intend to accomplish a worthwhile goal, the method he or she chose was self-defeating.

And that was before the text mutated.

Within a few weeks of its earliest appearance, revised versions of the message were circulating even more rapidly than the original. A new allegation had been added -- at the top of the message in one variant, at the bottom in another -- which some people found more frightening and others found more suspect than the original:

Subject: Woman's Health Information

FYI, very important, please read.


Have you heard that tampon makers include asbestos in tampons? Because asbestos makes you bleed more...if you bleed more, you're going to need to use more. Why wasn't this against the law since asbestos is so dangerous? Because the powers that be, in all their wisdom (not), did not consider tampons as being ingested, and therefore wasn't illegal or considered dangerous.

This month's Essence magazine has a small article about this and they mention two manufacturers of a cotton tampon alternative. The companies are Organic Essentials @ (800) 765-6491 and the Black-owned terra femme @ (800)755-0212.

A woman getting her Ph.D. at University of Colorado @ Boulder sent this. Read on if you value your health....

[ Full text ]

Experts: tampons do not contain asbestos

The claims about residual dioxin in tampons may be debatable, but the claims about asbestos are pure hogwash. Tampons do not contain asbestos and never have. No research has been published anywhere to even suggest it.

I spoke with an editor of Essence magazine - which, according to the email, ran a story about asbestos in tampons - and she informed me that the magazine had never printed any such claims.

Dr. Philip Tierno Jr., chief of clinical microbiology/immunology at NYU Medical Center and an expert on tampon safety issues, calls the asbestos allegations "absurd." In a statement for the Menstrual Product Safety page of the Museum of Menstruation's Website, Tierno said he knows from his experience examining manufacturer's documents during past toxic shock syndrome litigation that asbestos is not and has never been used in the making of tampons.

As for the two "manufacturers of a cotton tampon alternative" mentioned in the email - Organic Essentials and Terra Femme - they do exist and both offer products competing with name-brand tampons. But neither makes any claims regarding asbestos in any promotional literature. The misinformation does not appear to have come from them. We may never know where it came from.

But people love sharing scare stories...

We do know that spontaneous alterations of the texts of forwarded emails are common; in fact, they're the rule rather than the exception. And, to revisit my introductory thesis, this demonstrates why chain email is inherently untrustworthy. As a sender, you don't know if the information will survive intact once it leaves your outbox; as a recipient, you have no idea, without researching it yourself, whether all or even part of the information you've received is true or what was intended by the original author.

We also know that people love sharing scare stories by email, substantiated or not -- perhaps especially if they're not. A brief perusal of the impressive list of current Internet hoaxes aptly demonstrates that.

Forwarding unverified information by email amounts to nothing more nor less than electronic rumormongering. It's a cliche by now, but true -- the anonymity of the medium and the speed with which texts can be transmitted make the Internet an unparalleled vehicle for spreading false rumors.

Considered as folklore, this is a new and fascinating arena for study. But from a practical standpoint there are darker implications. Thousands of new users sign onto the Internet for the first time every day. Many of them, unaware of the potential for deception, bring a naive credulity to their online interactions which makes them especially vulnerable to misinformation. Experience shows that even some longtime users are slow to develop the kind of healthy skepticism that serves as a first line of defense against Net-propagated lies. All of which creates the potential, under the right circumstances, for mass confusion, if not hysteria. We need to educate ourselves and one another against this.

The dioxin question

The health threat posed by the production of dioxin during the bleaching process may or may not be accurately represented in the email alert. The scientific debate rests on some sticky technical issues, among them the question of whether or not tampon materials are adequately tested for contamination and precisely what level of contamination can truly be regarded as "safe."

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration says it's confident that the trace levels of dioxin found in some tampons in the past were harmless, as indicated in the following statement found on its Website:

When questions about dioxin arose a number of years ago, FDA asked tampon manufacturers to provide information about their pulp purification processes and the potential for dioxin contamination. Manufacturers of rayon tampons are also asked to routinely monitor dioxin levels in the raw material used or the finished tampons. Manufacturers have provided FDA with test results of studies conducted at independent laboratories, using the most sensitive test methods available. Dioxin monitoring is a highly technical assay performed at only a few independent expert laboratories in the U.S. The detectable limit of this assay is currently approximately 0.1 to 1 parts per trillion of dioxin.

Using these tests, dioxin levels in the rayon raw materials for tampons are reported to be at or below the detectable limit of the state-of-the-art dioxin assay, i.e., approximately 0.1 to 1 parts per trillion. FDA's risk assessment indicates that this exposure is many times less than normally present in the body from other environmental sources, so small that any risk of adverse health effects is considered negligible. A part per trillion is about the same as one teaspoon in a lake fifteen feet deep and a mile square.

- 'Tampons and Asbestos, Dioxin, & TSS', 07/23/99

Naturally, the FDA's sanguine view is echoed by manufacturers. According to Tambrands (Procter & Gamble), the makers of Tampax:

The purification method that we require of our suppliers does not form detectable levels of dioxin. Our method has been established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a basic standard method for the pulp and paper industry. In fact, we test materials from our suppliers to make sure they're meeting our standard for dioxin-free fibers. The methods we use to analyze for dioxin are the most advanced available, and can detect even minute amounts of dioxin, if present.
- 'Misleading Rumors About Tampons'

But Karen Houppert, who authored a Village Voice article (referenced in the email alert) exploring the dioxin controversy in depth, maintains that not enough research or testing has been done to support these reassurances:

[L]ast September [1994], the Environmental Protection Agency began preparing a new report on dioxin that suggests the threshold level for dioxin damage may be considerably lower than previously believed. The Voice obtained a draft of this unpublished document, which makes some startling assertions. Based on results from scientists around the world, from sources as diverse as a U.S. Air Force study, which documented decreased testis size in men exposed to dioxin to a University of South Florida study, which saw a connection between dioxin exposure and endometriosis in monkeys, it's clear that, even more important than the potential carcinogenic link, tests are showing that dioxin, in levels once thought acceptably low, affects the reproductive and immune systems.
- 'Pulling the Plug on the Tampon Industry', 02/07/95

According to Houppert, the authors of the aforementioned EPA report admitted that identifying an "acceptable" exposure level is "almost irrelevant," given that "the real danger comes from repeated contact" - confirming a statement made in the email alert.

Responding to the ongoing controversy, Representative Carolyn B. Maloney of New York sponsored the Tampon Safety and Research Act of 1997 with the following goals in mind:

"To provide for research to determine the extent to which the presence of dioxin, synthetic fibers, and other additives in tampons and similar products used by women with respect to menstruation pose any risks to the health of women, including risks relating to cervical cancer, endometriosis, infertility, ovarian cancer, breast cancer, immune system deficiencies, pelvic inflammatory disease, and toxic shock syndrome, and for other purposes."

As of this writing, the future of the bill is uncertain. You can check its current status by visiting the House of Representatives Website or by writing your Congressional Representatives.

May 1999 update:

Further reading:

Current Hoaxes / Netlore
The Urban Legends Top 25

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