Assortment of feminine hygiene products

Journee Taylor buys organic tampons whenever she can.

“They just feel safer — knowing you aren’t risking your body every month to various chemicals that could harm you and your reproductive health, ” said Taylor, a 23-year-old college student from Smyrna.

African American woman wearing grey shirt stands in grocery store aisle picking out feminine products.
Journee Taylor browses the selection of feminine hygiene products at a local store, opting for organic tampons whenever she can. (Courtesy Bianca Dejesus)

Taylor is aware of studies revealing some feminine hygiene products have been contaminated with PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances used in consumer products for many decades.

Also known as “forever chemicals” because of how long they last in the environment, they are found in many places, including water, soil, air, and food. Manufacturers use them to make feminine hygiene products more absorbent and stain-resistant.

Exposure to certain levels of PFAs have been linked to health problems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Among them: decreased fertility and increased high blood pressure in pregnant women, an increased risk of some forms of cancer and developmental delays in children.

However, the health effects from exposure to low environmental levels of PFAs are “uncertain,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says more research is necessary.

Nearly half of 46 different sanitary pads, panty liners and incontinence pads tested by an EPA-certified lab had indications of PFAs, according to a report released in November by Environmental Health News and a consumer activist website called Mamavation.

Manufacturers of some of these products did not respond to requests for comment.

But reported in February that manufacturers are arguing they’re not aware that PFAs are in their products, or that if they are present, they are in such small amounts that they could not cause harm.

In the last eight years, 62 state and federal laws aimed at increasing affordability, access and the safety of menstrual products have been enacted, according to Women’s Voices for the Earth, a women-led environmental organization. In 2019, for example, New York’s governor signed into law a measure requiring manufacturers to disclose ingredients on all boxes of menstrual products for sale.

“As a result of that law, we have been learning more about what can be found in menstrual products. We have more and more states introducing legislation,” said Jamie McConnell, deputy director of Women’s Voices of the Earth.

A similar measure and a separate bill that would have banned the sale of feminine hygiene products containing certain chemicals both failed to advance in Georgia’s Republican-controlled Legislature this year. But their Democratic sponsor said she would continue backing the same measures.

African American woman wearing orange shirt and black blazer poses against grey background
Kim Schofield (Courtesy Kim Schofield)

“This is an uncomfortable topic, but we want better protections and will get it,” said state Rep. Kim Schofield of Atlanta.

Jessian Choy is credited with focusing attention on the issue. The author of an advice column, Choy teamed up with Graham Peaslee, who teaches nuclear physics at Notre Dame University, to test Thinx period underwear. His tests detected PFAs and the results were published in the Sierra magazine in January 2020.

Thinx settled a class action lawsuit alleging its products contain PFAs but denied the accusations.

“I wasn’t surprised when I learned that there were PFAs,” Choy said. “The surprise was how quickly people forgot about this.”

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