India continues to fare poorly when it comes to providing hygienic and cheap menstrual care for women. A recent revelation in scientific study is an added dampener to the current bleak scenario. A recent study has reported the presence of harmful chemicals in sanitary napkins of popular brands in India. Added to the issue is the absence of regulations pertaining to the safety of menstrual products.
The report, titled ‘Wrapped In Secrecy’, investigated the presence of two specific chemicals in pads of ten popular menstrual brands- phthalates and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The study was conducted by Toxics Link, an environmental health NGO. Phthalates are used as plasticizers in plastic products to make the product soft and flexible. Their concentration varied from 10 to 19,600 micrograms per kg of sanitary pads.
VOCs are chemicals that evaporate easily, and frequently used in paints, deodorants, nail polish, etc, and can potentially harm human health. The authors of the report claimed VOCs were used in sanitary pads in order to add fragrance. These chemicals were detected in all tested products, varying in the range of 1-690 micrograms per kg. Interestingly, supposedly organic pads were found to contain more VOCs than inorganic ones.
Dr. Amit, one of the investigators, said, “It is shocking to find numerous harmful chemicals in commonly available sanitary products, including toxic chemicals like carcinogens, reproductive toxins, endocrine disruptors, and allergens”. Health hazards related to phthalates include endometriosis, pregnancy-related problems, issues with fetal development, insulin resistance, hypertension, and so forth.
All the ten brands of sanitary napkins contained 25 types of VOCs. They can cause a wide range of harmful effects, such as impacting brain functioning, causing skin inflammation, anemia, kidney and liver dysfunction, and also tiredness and unconsciousness.
A worrying fact is that these harmful chemicals can easily enter women’s bodies through sanitary pads. Dr Aakanksha Mehrotra, a programme coordinator at Toxics Link, said, “As a mucous membrane, the vagina can secrete and absorb chemicals at a higher rate than the skin”.
The study also noted that given the lack of menstrual health regulations, manufacturers rarely pay heed to the long-term health impact of chemicals on women. Priti Banthia Mahesh, chief programme coordinator at Toxics Link, spoke about alternatives. “There are. But phthalates are most conveniently available. Since there is no regulation, there has been no effort from the industry to look at other options.”.
Mahesh also said, “While there are regulations in the European region, the composition, manufacture and usage of sanitary pads are not governed by a specific regulation in India but are subject to BIS standards which have nothing specific on chemicals”.
According to the latest National Family Health Survey, nearly 64 per cent of women aged 15-24 years use sanitary pads. While sanitary pads have already been criticized for being a menace for the environment, the study has revealed their serious health implications as well.
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