DELHI – After a Delhi-based environmental NGO released a study that sanitary napkins sold in India carry high amounts of chemicals linked with heart disorders, diabetes and cancer, news outlets carried it with a focus on cancer, raising fear among people.
But are sanitary napkins really that dangerous? What kind of impact can such news have?
BOOM spoke to the researchers of the study and health experts and asked them these vital questions. We tried to understand why and how the use of sanitary pads can cause serious health complications and what can be the solutions.
Dr Akansha Mehrotra, one of the researchers, told BOOM that the aim was not to create "mass hysteria" but to highlight the presence of chemicals that are higher in Indian products than the global standard, therefore can cause serious health issues including cancer.
The researcher said that the onus is on the Indian government to make a body and standards for chemicals used in sanitary products, pointing out that India lacks a proper standard and testing applicable for manufacturers before allowing their products into the market.
The use of these chemicals in pads can cause health issues, most notably like PCOS, irregular periods, diabetes and other reproductive infections.
"Many women use these sanitary pads for prolonged periods of time. The skin around the vaginal area is quite permeable. As a result, these chemicals can be absorbed at a faster and greater rate," the researcher said.
These chemicals are used for a variety of purposes, including increasing the elasticity, durability, and fragrance of a product.
"Cancer is a broad term. A variety of health issues may arise due to the higher presence of chemicals like phthalates and VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) that we found in the samples. However, the idea is that the chemicals beyond a certain quantity only contained in these pads are carcinogenic," Dr Mehrotra told BOOM.
Why was the study conducted?
The researchers at Toxic Links, the Delhi-based NGO, felt it is important to inform people that without proper checks and balances from the government on manufacturers, chemicals that are used to make pads in India can be dangerous.
In India, there are no clear regulations on the chemical content of sanitary pads for manufacturers. The Bureau of Indian Standards 1980 specifies very basic tests to determine absorbent fillers' surface and pad texture. However, there is no requirement to test the toxicity of ingredients.
Sanitary pad manufacturing companies are not required by law to state ingredients on the packet as they are labeled as 'medical products', thus exempted from the ingredient listing.
What are the chemicals found in sanitary products?
The study was conducted to test the presence of various chemicals and to publicize the fact that certain chemicals are present in the pads which are beyond the standard followed across the globe. The study concentrated on phthalates and VOCs.
Over the past few years, some studies done in Europe, US and other countries have reported presence of chemicals such as phthalates and VOCs in menstrual products, raising questions and concerns about the impact on the health of the users.
The phthalate standard in the EU is 0.1%.
But in India, there is little or no information on ingredients or the presence of toxic chemicals in the products sold or available in the market. The researcher pointed out there are no phthalate or VOC usage regulations in India.
There is no law that requires manufacturers to disclose which chemicals they use and in what proportions.
"There is little or no research on the subject in India. The goal of this report is to raise awareness of the issue among the government and other stakeholders, as well as to encourage them to conduct additional research on a larger scale," the researcher told BOOM.
India does not test if sanitary napkins have excessive chemicals
According to the study, the market for sanitary pads in India has increased rapidly over the last two decades. In 2016, sanitary pad sales in the country went up to 5.12 billion pieces, which was expected to grow to 10.31 billion pieces by 2021.
Jaydeep Mandal, founder at Aakar Innovations, a hybrid social enterprise that enables women to produce sanitary napkins within their communities, told BOOM that the study should have been done much earlier as there has been a surge of sanitary products in India. He called many of them 'fake'.
"Every month there are new brands on Amazon that claim different benefits which none of them have," he said.
He explained that the government of India had come up with the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) which specifies two things – the compostability standard, which has a connection with the environment but nothing directly with health) and health standards (a part of it is covered under cytotoxic testing.)
Mandal said that cytotoxic testing (a test that verifies the product is good for the human body) was made compulsory by BIS for manufacturers but due to many pressures from different multinationals, it was made optional later.
"There are VOCs and chemicals like phthalates used in pads but it cannot be harmful to the human body if the pads get passed in this test. Skipping the test means there is no information how much phthalates and VOCs are present in the product. If the proportion is higher, definitely then they can be harmful," Mandal told BOOM.
The social entrepreneur said that not everyone in the business can pass cytotoxic testing.
The majority of manufacturers are skipping the testing. In fact, the top brands which are commonly used in India, as even mentioned by the Toxic Lines research, do not get this testing done, Mandal said.
The researchers selected a total of ten menstrual products from the markets as well as online portals. Both organic and inorganic sanitary pads samples were included in the qualitative and quantitative analysis. The number of inorganic pads included in the study is more, given their wide usage. Pads like Whisper, Stayfree, Sofy, Niine, Bella, Ultra, Pee Safe, etc, all popular brands were included in the study.
"Cytotoxicity tests are very important to keep a check on that the product is not harmful to the human body. In today's world, there are hardly any products that don't contain a certain amount of chemicals that are harmful to the human body but it comes to a customer after passing the test which certifies the product can not be dangerous for human health," he explained.
Why are there no checks in place for sanitary napkins?
Mandal said there are many reasons why sanitary napkins manufacturers don't make their products go through the cytotoxicity test.
For instance, in order to make the product attractive for a customer, companies add features like high absorption level, fragrance etc in it. To meet such promises, the manufacturers add a higher quantity of phthalates and VOCs.
"Without having any regulations for passing the test, the product certainly becomes harmful for the human body," he said.
Another reason is that the rampant growth of small start-ups finds it hard to get the testing done. Therefore, the products reach the market without any testing.
"Many manufacturers use plastic quantities in pads and sometimes treatments like antibacterial elements in it. What kind of chemicals the companies are using in adding such features remains unmonitored," he said.
This explains why companies don't test their products before it reaches the market, but why has the government not made testing mandatory?
The biggest challenge in India is that sanitary pads are still not a health product in India. It comes under medical textiles which makes testing optional.
The researchers and medical experts BOOM spoke to stressed that it is time to declare sanitary napkins as a health product. They believe only then will all the regulations fall in place.
The social entrepreneur expressed concern about the facilities for small units in this business not following the standard procedure while making the products. "If one visits the units, you'll find a lack of proper hygiene and training inside the units," he said.
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