'Popular Sanitary Pads Sold in India Have Harmful Chemicals, Cause Serious Health Issues': Report

Titled 'Wrapped in Secrecy', the report by New Delhi-based NGO Toxics Link is based on the tests conducted on 10 different types of sanitary pads – organic and inorganic – widely available in the market.

New Delhi: A study by New Delhi-based non-profit organisation, Toxics Link, has indicated that most of the popular brands of sanitary napkins sold in India contain harmful chemicals.

The study released on Monday, November 21, found that in the absence of any mandatory rules to limit the use of these chemicals in the country, the manufacturers hardly pay heed to the long-term adverse effects that these chemicals cause to females.

Titled ‘Wrapped in Secrecy’, the report presents a detailed investigation that the researchers did to find out the presence of two specific chemicals – phthalates and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Phthalates are used as plasticizers in various products. Plasticizers are chemicals which are added to make the product soft, flexible and reduce its friction on the surface, and they have been in use for various plastic products for about a century. 

Authors of the report claim they are used in sanitary pads for joining their different layers, and to increase their elasticity. The researchers tested 10 different types of sanitary pads – organic and inorganic – available in the market. For every single product, they have presented the amounts of phthalates and VOCs, separately, in the report

It revealed that two of the most sold sanitary pads in India contained six types of phthalates. The total concentration of phthalates spanned across a very wide range – from 10 to 19,600 micrograms per kg. A total of 12 different phthalates were found across the range of products.

Quoting various scientific studies, the report points out numerous health hazards of phthalates. It includes endometriosis (a disease where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside the uterus, causing pain and/or infertility), pregnancy-related complications, issues with fetal development, insulin resistance, hypertension, and so on and so forth. However, it is not presented in the report how pronounced the impacts can be.

Also read: What NFHS-5 Data Tells Us About Indian Women’s Use of Period Products

Priti Mahesh, one of the authors of the report, explained that the document meant does not claim in any way that only sanitary pads lead to exposure to phthalates. “The exposure is possible through various other routes but vaginal tissues have more permeable skin than the rest of the tissues,” she added. 

Asked if there are no alternatives to phthalates, Mahesh, who is also chief programme coordinator at Toxics Link, told The Wire, “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.” 

“Do the alternatives to phthalates change the process of production or will their subtraction from pads affect their basic functionality – these are the questions that the industry has to deal with,” she added. 

Toxics Links didn’t write to these companies before releasing the report. Mahesh said they would do it now since the report has been released.  

The presence of phthalates in sanitary pads has been documented in various other studies but almost all were conducted for products sold outside India. This one published in 2020 showed the presence of these harmful chemicals in pads sold in the United States. Another study, also published in 2020, had a similar finding for menstrual products sold in China. Besides these two studies, the report itself enlists a slew of such studies. 

Another worrying nature of chemicals found in the napkins was VOCs. These chemicals easily evaporate in the air. They are mostly used in paints, deodorants, air fresheners, nail polish, moth repellents, fuels and automotive products and some of them can cause adverse effects on human health.  In sanitary napkins, the authors of the report said, they are used to add fragrance. 

 The ten sanitary napkins products were tested for 25 types of VOCs. Ranging from impacting brain functioning to causing skin inflammation, anaemia, liver and kidney dysfunction to tiredness and unconsciousness, the 25 VOCs have been listed to cause a wide range of harmful effects associated with each one of them, as presented in the report.  

Representative Image. Photo: Natracare/Unsplash.

Toxics Link researchers detected VOCs in all of the tested products in the range of 1-690 micrograms per kg by weight [of product]. The two most popularly used products were found to be containing 14 VOCs. Some of the organic pads were found to be containing more VOCs than inorganic ones. For each product tested, the report has detailed which VOCs were found and in what quantities.  

Again, this was not the first study to test the presence of VOCs in sanitary napkins but all done previously were conducted on products sold outside India. This one done in the US, and published in 2020, found VOCs in all of the tested feminine hygiene products.  This report has also referenced many other such studies. In 2017, a big group of women in South Korea filed a classic lawsuit against a napkin-making firm allegedly for the presence of VOCs. Their agitation resulted in the withdrawal of the product from the market. Another group of women in the US released similar findings from an investigation that it had commissioned in 2014. 

Legal loopholes 

Around the world, the laws regulating the presence of chemicals in sanitary products are by and large weak. Even the US Food and Drugs Administration’s regulations for these products are not mandatory. In France, Australia and China, there is a lot of scope for improvement. Only the European Union (EU) and South Korea have some legally-binding regulations. In the EU, phthalates are restricted to a maximum content of 0.1% by weight of the plasticised material in the article. In South Korea, they are banned. 

In India, there is no law to regulate chemicals’ presence in sanitary products. The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) 1980 specifies very basic tests to determine absorbent fillers surface and pad texture. However, there is no requirement to test the toxicity of ingredients.

And, whatever standards even BIS prescribes now – though they have nothing to do with chemicals – are not mandatory.  

Also read: What Is Sustainable Menstruation?

“Our findings clearly indicate that it is high time that the government frames standards to this effect and make them mandatory,” Mahesh said, adding the standards can range from limiting their presence to a certain extent to completely banning them. “But to do anything of that sort, the government has to first conduct a study. Our study tested for only two chemicals and for certain products. The government will need data for all chemicals and across all sanitary products.” 

Another recommendation that Mahesh has, and it is similar to the demands of various women groups mentioned above, is ‘labelling’ these products. None of the sanitary products available in the Indian market today say on their labels that they contain phthalates and VOCs. “We, at the minimum, have the right to know that,” Mahesh said.  

Asked if she didn’t worry that this report may put sanitary napkins, across the board, in a bad light and discourage their usage, she said, “We never claimed if any other type of sanitary product is better than napkins. They may or may not contain chemicals – it is subject to further investigations.”

All that we desire through this study is to initiate a discussion around this almost completely ignored subject, she concluded.  

Update, 5:15 pm on November 22, 2022: The authors of the report clarified on November 22 to the reporter that phthalates were present within European Union-permitted limits in all the tested samples.