Tampons shown to contain toxic metals in first study to test for them

US researchers have found small concentrations of metals like lead, arsenic, and cadmium, in tampons.

They say more research is needed to discover if there is any danger to tampon users.

“Although toxic metals are ubiquitous and we are exposed to low levels at any given time, our study clearly shows that metals are also present in menstrual products, and that women might be at higher risk for exposure using these products,” says Kathrin Schilling, an assistant professor at Columbia University, US, and co-author of a study published in Environmental International.

Lead author Jenni Shearston, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California Berkeley, US, says it’s the first study of its kind.

“Despite this large potential for public health concern, very little research has been done to measure chemicals in tampons,” says Shearston.

“To our knowledge, this is the first paper to measure metals in tampons. Concerningly, we found concentrations of all metals we tested for, including toxic metals like arsenic and lead.”

The researchers tested 30 different types of tampon from 14 different brands sold in the US and Europe. They looked for 16 different metals: arsenic, barium, calcium, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, copper, iron, manganese, mercury, nickel, lead, selenium, strontium, vanadium, and zinc.

The study found lead measurable concentrations of all 16 metals. Arsenic, lead, and cadmium were all found in concentrations of nanograms per gram.

No brand or type of tampon had notably lower levels of metals overall. Organic tampons had higher levels of arsenic, but non-organic tampons had higher levels of lead.

It is not known whether these concentrations could cause negative health effects on users.

There are several different ways the metals could have become embedded into tampons. Cotton plants can absorb metals from soil and water, particularly when there are nearby contaminants. They can also be added during manufacturing processes as whiteners, antibacterial agents, or through cross-contamination from other factory processes.

Tampons are widely used by people who menstruate. About 300 million tampons are sold in Australia each year. Other studies have found that more than half of menstruaters in the US use tampons, and nearly half of menstruaters in Spain.

The researchers also point out that the vagina has a more permeable membrane, and could absorb these contaminants faster, than other places in the body. They urge further research to see if these metals could be leached out of the tampons during use.

“I really hope that manufacturers are required to test their products for metals, especially for toxic metals,” says Shearston.

“It would be exciting to see the public call for this, or to ask for better labelling on tampons and other menstrual products.”

Sign up to our weekly newsletter

Please login to favourite this article.