Making Tampons Free Can Make Them Safer, Too

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Women in America face two challenges that should embarrass any country, let alone one of the world’s wealthiest: At least one in five can’t afford the tampons and pads required to manage their monthly menstrual cycles, and nobody knows how safe the products really are.

In their efforts to address the first, governments can help solve the second, too.

Providing infrastructure for public health and hygiene — clean water, sanitation, toilets — is a fundamental government responsibility. Yet the recurring need of roughly half the population for menstrual supplies often goes unrecognized. Treating these products as discretionary consumer items — and, in many U.S. states, actually taxing them — puts people who menstruate at a disadvantage, burdening them with costs and difficulties that others don’t face.

Increasingly, governments around the world are recognizing that access to tampons and pads is a prerequisite for equality, and thus a basic right. Last week Scotland became the first country to provide free supplies for all students. Kenya has abolished sales tax on the products and provided funding for supplies in schools. In the U.S., the Justice Department has moved to make them freely available in federal prisons; New York State has done the same for middle and high schools, as has New York City for public schools, homeless shelters and prisons. Legislation introduced in New York State would expand the practice to every bathroom statewide.

Manufacturers are getting on board. The largest, Procter & Gamble, recently placed a full-page “End Period Poverty” ad in the New York Times, and has pledged to donate pads to the hunger-relief organization Feeding America (which distributes menstrual products) when consumers buy Always pads or mention them on social media. Earlier this year, Kotex manufacturer Kimberly-Clark launched a similar program called “With U, She Can."

Problem is, there’s too little information on the safety of some of the most widely used products. Independent studies have found trace amounts of pesticides, dioxins and other toxic chemicals in tampons — but such data are rare and incomplete. The Food and Drug Administration classifies menstrual products as medical devices, a category that does not require consumer labeling. The potential long-term risks aren’t trivial: A woman will use as many as 16,000 tampons and pads in her lifetime, in an area of the body that absorbs chemicals extremely efficiently. The longest trials manufacturers have done are for three months.

Ideally, legislators would require proper testing and labeling. Bills have been proposed at both state and federal levels. So far, though, Congress has been slow to act. For more than 20 years, New York Democrat Carolyn Maloney has repeatedly introduced a bill mandating independent testing of all menstrual products and public disclosure of their contents. The legislation has never gotten out of committee.

Here’s where the campaign to improve access comes in. As institutions such as the Federal Bureau of Prisons and New York City Department of Education start providing more menstrual supplies, they will become among the largest buyers of the products. As such, they’ll have the leverage to demand adequate safety testing and better products. For a start, they should require companies to list ingredients and, as necessary, include health warnings for any detected toxins. Some smaller companies, such as Cora and Lola, already do so — and focus on using safe, high-quality ingredients.

It would be a shame if governments’ efforts to address period poverty ended up increasing the use of potentially unsafe products, particularly in schools and among the poor. Instead, let’s seize this opportunity to solve both problems at once.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Laura Strausfeld is the co-founder of Period Equity, a nonprofit that advocates for safe and accessible menstrual supplies, and a frequent contributor to the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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