Hidden costs of Disposable Sanitary Napkins

Convenience at what cost?

Disposable sanitary napkins, promoted as being hygienic, are replacing cloth as a means of menstrual protection in the developing world. But at what costs?

Costs to women’s bodies

  • Most brands are likely to have toxic chemicals in them that are absorbed by the highly porous mucous membranes in the vagina and vulva.
  • Some chemicals like dioxins, are highly toxic, even in trace quantities. Such chemicals cannot be metabolized by the body. They accumulate in the body with a potential cumulative effect. Dioxins can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.

Costs to nature

In India, disposable sanitary napkins, like in most parts of the world, are either flushed down the toilet, thrown into the trash, or burnt. All these methods lead to social and environmental injustice.

Costs of landfilling

  • Most commercial brands have a significant component of non-biodegradable plastic. The plastic content in a single commercial napkin is equivalent to 4 average-sized plastic bags. In 1 month alone a woman disposes the equivalent of 100 plastic bags.
  • The biodegradable matter contains chlorine (through the bleaching process) and pesticides
  • If all 355 million menstruating women in India used commercial sanitary napkins, they would generate mountains of waste. If landfilled this waste would annually occupy 288 hectares of space a year and stay undecomposed for 700 years. (288 hectares =173 football stadiums)
  • In India, used, unwrapped sanitary napkins often have to be manually picked up by waste workers with their bare hands. This is a major health risk.

Costs of incineration

  • Incineration in simple, low-temperature incinerators are now being promoted in India as a method of disposal. But the toxic dioxins present in sanitary napkins are released into the air and soil when used napkins are burnt under temperatures lower than 800 degrees Celsius.
  • Low-temperature incinerators also release other polluting gases into the atmosphere.
  • Toxic chemicals are presented in a concentrated form in the residual ash, which then ultimately finds its ways into soil and waterways.

Costs if flushed

  • Sanitary napkins are also flushed down the toilets or thrown into open drains. But drains and sewers are meant to carry only fluids and excreta.
  • Most commercially produced napkins contain a chemical component called super-absorbent-gel that is designed to absorb fluids. When flushed down the toilet, the napkin continues to bloat as it makes its way through the underground drains, open channels and clogs up the sewers.
  • Conservancy workers then have to risk their health and even their lives to dive into manholes to remove the napkin by hand.
  • Worldwide, disposable sanitary napkins and plastic tampon applicators frequently wash up on beaches

Fact sheet put together by Bindu Mohanty, earth&us with information gathered from various sources, including Dirty Secrets by Eco Femme and Seeing Red by Women’s Environmental Network.