Statement by Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney upon introduction of "The Tampon Safety and Research Act of 1997"

Nov 11, 1997
Press Release

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to introduce an important piece of women's health legislation – "The Tampon Safety and Research Act of 1997." The research called for in this bipartisan bill will finally give women the accurate information they need to make informed decisions about their health as it relates to tampon use.

Why is this issue important? Because tampons and other related products often contain additives, synthetic fibers, and dioxin. Dioxin is a toxic by-product of the paper manufacturing process. Wood pulp, as well as the rayon used in nearly all tampons, undergoes several production processes; a common method is chlorine bleaching, a process which results in the formation of dioxin and other contaminants. As a result, trace amounts of dioxin is present in most paper products, from toilet paper to tampons.

Dioxins are also found in varying levels throughout the environment, but are women being subjected to additional and potentially avoidable exposures to dioxin through tampon use? Let me put dioxin in perspective, because we only have to consult recent history to know of the potentially disastrous effects of this substance. Dioxin is a member of the organochlorine group, which includes the contaminants found in Agent Orange, the Vietnam War-era defoliant, and at Love Canal.

But let's consult the experts, too. According to a 1994 report issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, dioxins are a known animal cancer-causing agent as well as a probable human carcinogen. My bill is specifically concerned with the possible links between dioxin in tampons and ovarian, cervical, and breast cancers, as well as other potential hazards.

A 1996 EPA study has also linked dioxin exposure with increased risks for endometriosis, an often painful menstrual-related condition that is a leading cause of infertility. Further, the EPA has concluded that people with high exposure to dioxins may be at risk for other effects that could suppress the immune system, increase the risk of pelvic inflammatory disease, reduce fertility, and possibly interfere with normal fetal and childhood development.

The EPA conclusions regarding dioxin exposure are particularly alarming in light of a 1989 Food and Drug Administration report, which stated that "possible exposures from all other medical device sources would be dwarfed by the potential tampon exposure." Why? Because tampons are used by up to 70% of menstruating women in the United States, and the average woman may use as many as 11,400 tampons during her lifetime. If dioxin is putting women at risk, could the long-term use of tampons increase that risk?

What makes these toxic residues in tampons even more disturbing is that they come in direct contact with some of the most absorbent tissue in a woman's body. According to Dr. Philip Tierno, Jr., director of microbiology and immunology at New York University Medical Center, almost anything placed on this tissue -- including dioxin -- gets absorbed into the body.

According to researchers, dioxin is stored in fatty tissue -- just like that found in the vagina. And the fact is that women have more body fat than men, possibly allowing them to more efficiently store dioxins from all sources, not just tampons. Worse yet, the effects of dioxin are cumulative, and can be measured as much as 20 or 30 years after exposure. This accumulation is cause for particular concern, because a woman may be exposed to dioxin in tampons for approximately 40 years over the course of her reproductive life.

The question, of course, is why it is acceptable to have this toxic substance in tampons -- despite the advice of an FDA scientist to the contrary. A 1989 agency document reported that "the most effective risk management strategy would be to assure that tampons, and menstrual pads for good measure, contain no dioxin." And why has there been far more testing on the possible health effects of chlorine-bleached coffee filters than on chlorine-bleached tampons and related products? My bill seeks to address this inadequacy, and finally give women the most accurate, up-to-date information available regarding this critical health concern.

Although the FDA currently requires tampon manufacturers to monitor dioxin levels in their finished products, the results are not available to the public. When I -- as a Member of Congress -- requested the information, the FDA told me it was proprietary information and therefore could not be released. It should be noted that the dioxin tests relied upon by the FDA are done by the manufacturers themselves, who not surprisingly insist their products are safe. Some of my constituents say this is the equivalent of the fox guarding the hen house.

How much dioxin exposure is considered safe for humans? And does the fact that tampons are in direct contact with absorbent tissue, and for extended periods of time, make whatever levels of dioxin tampons possess even more dangerous? Is this the equivalent of a ticking time bomb, capable of increasing women's risks for several life-threatening or fertility-threatening diseases? Unfortunately there are no easy answers. We simply don't have instructive, persuasive evidence either way.

Many experts believe, however, that if the slightest possibility exists that dioxin residues in tampons could harm women, the dioxin should simply be eliminated. I also believe we should err on the side of protecting women's health. Tampon manufacturers are not required to disclose ingredients to consumers, although many have taken the positive step of voluntarily disclosing this information. However, women are still being forced to take the word of the industry-sponsored research that their products are completely safe.

My bill also addresses the many other potentially harmful additives in tampons, including chlorine compounds, absorbency enhancers, and synthetic fibers, as well as deodorants and fragrances. Most people are surprised to learn that these additives are commonly found in these products.

We do not really know enough about the potential risks associated with such additives. Independent research has already shown that synthetic fiber additives in tampons amplify toxins, which are associated with Toxic Shock. Toxic Shock Syndrome is a rare bacterial illness that caused over 50 deaths between 1979 and 1980, when the link between tampons and Toxic Shock was first established. According to a 1994 study, of the Toxic Shock cases occurring in menstruating women, up to 99% were using tampons. Obviously Toxic Shock Syndrome is still a women's health concern, and its link to tampons has become more clear.

The fact is, women do not have the information they need to make sound decisions about their health. For the sake of women's well-being, we need accurate, independent information. American women have a right to know about any potential hazards associated with tampons and other related products. It is only when women fully understand the consequences that they can make truly informed decisions about their reproductive health.

I should also note that my bill is not the first time a Member of Congress has expressed concern about this issue. In 1992, the late Rep. Ted Weiss of New York brought the issue up in a subcommittee hearing of the Committee on Government Operations. He did this after his staff had uncovered internal FDA documents which suggested the agency had not adequately investigated the danger of dioxin in tampons.

My bill would direct the National Institutes of Health to conduct research to determine the extent to which the presence of dioxin, synthetic fibers, and other additives in tampons and related menstruation products pose any health risks to women. An NIH study would mean that American women could depend on independent research, and not on the word of research funded by tampon manufacturers.

Mr. Speaker, I hope my colleagues will join me in this fight to get accurate health information to the women of America. Their future fertility, and perhaps their lives, may depend on it.

Read Representative Carolyn Maloney's Letter to the Editor Article sent to Glamour Magazine