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Tampons contain toxic metals including lead and arsenic, researchers find

An image of tampons.
An image of tampons. Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Lauren Chadwick
Published on Updated
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A new study detected concentrations of 16 metals in different kinds of tampons, but researchers say they don’t know if they are impacting health.

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Tampons contain concentrations of several metals, including toxic ones like lead and arsenic, according to a new study, but more research is needed to determine if it could affect people’s health.

Researchers evaluated 16 metals across 14 different tampon brands and found "measurable concentrations" of all the metals evaluated.

This included toxic metals such as lead, cadmium, and arsenic, and high levels of calcium and zinc compared to the other metals.

Tampons are typically made of cotton or rayon and are used to absorb menstrual flow inside the body.

Researchers say the product is of particular concern for potential chemical exposure because the vagina is "highly absorptive" and people who menstruate use them regularly for years.

"This study is a first step because while we did find metals in tampons, we don’t know if the metals can leach out of the tampons and be absorbed by the body. We don’t know if the metals in tampons are impacting health," Jenni Shearston, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Berkeley and lead author of the study, told Euronews Health in an email.

"This is why it’s really important that we continue to study tampons, especially because a large number of people (about 52-86 per cent of menstruating people) use tampons, and use them for decades," she added.

There were differences between the tampons, for instance, lead concentrations were higher in non-organic tampons while arsenic was higher in organic ones, they said.

Should people who menstruate be concerned?

Studies measuring the amount of metals and chemicals in menstrual products "are important but on their own are insufficient to tell if people who menstruate should be concerned," Kabrena Rodda, group lead and senior advisor in analytical chemistry & instrumentation at the Pacific Northwest National Lab in the United States, told Euronews Health in an email.

This study is a first step because while we did find metals in tampons, we don’t know if the metals can leach out of the tampons and be absorbed by the body.

Rodda, who was not involved in the study, said further research measuring the amount of these materials in the bloodstream could be important but that it would be complicated as "the absorbent materials used in menstrual products are also used in clothing, towels, bed linen, and… other common household items," she said.

"Even if absorption of the studied materials occurs to a high degree, we would also need to explore the extent to which exposure via other means such as wearing clothes made of the same material, further increase(s) blood levels," she said.

Graham Peaslee, a physics professor at the University of Notre Dame in the US who has previously tested female hygiene products for chemicals, said in an email his biggest concern is that "zinc appears to be intentionally added to many tampons - which is exactly what we have found in other textile products, such as the textiles used in menstrual panties”.

Peaslee said that copper and zinc are often added to textiles such as cotton to reduce odour since they are antimicrobial but some research has suggested they might not be as effective in clothing worn on the human body as they are in the lab.

Meanwhile, he said neither the lead nor arsenic concentrations appeared very high, "so for the users, you don't need to worry about most of the metals observed in this study".

Shearston, meanwhile, said that manufacturers should test their products for metals and the study’s authors called for more research to test the health impact of their findings.

Period products have increasingly come under scrutiny, particularly for containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as "forever chemicals," which have dangerous effects on the environment and our health. 

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