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by Jan Harold Brunvand
November 8, 1998
Aside from the usual rebroadcasts of previously aired rumors and warnings (most of them urban or cyberban legends of one ilk or another) two rather frightening warnings were forwarded to me recently. I hadn't seen them before, though they shared many similarities with previous legends.
What makes them stand out, as did the 90# Phone Scam Alert, is that the purported spectrum of "danger" includes just about every human being on the planet. You may recall that the 9-0-# phone scam warning originating from a Navy base omitted a crucial detail, and therefore read as if dialing "9-0-#" on any phone, anywhere, gave the outside caller control of your phone. It wasn't quite that simple.
This week, I'll address the first warning, regarding commercially available tampons. Tampons that kill.
Subject: Re: FW: MUST READ.....SERIOUS ISSUE FOR LADIES
This was sent to me to pass on.
Not only this, but I had also heard many tampon makers would include asbestos in the tampon. Why? Because asbestos makes you bleed more... if you bleed more, you're going to need to use more. Why wasn't this against the law since asbestos is so dangerous? Because the powers that be, in all their wisdom (not), did not consider tampons as being ingested, and therefore wasn't illegal or considered dangerous.
This month's Essence magazine has a small article about this and they mention two manufacturers of a cotton tampon alternative. The companies are Organic Essentials @ (800) 765-6491 and the Black-owned terra femme @ (800) 755-0212. A woman getting her Ph.D. at University of Colorado @ Boulder sent this. Read on if you value your health ...
I am writing this because women are not being informed about the dangers of something most of us use - tampons. I'm taking a class this month and I have been learning a lot about biology and the woman, including much about feminine hygiene. Recently we have learned that tampons are actually dangerous (for other reasons than TSS).
Read on if you're interested, if not, that's fine too. But I'll tell you this - after learning about this in our class, most of the females wound up feeling angry and upset with the tampon industry, and I for one, am going to do something about it. To start, I want to inform everyone I can, and e-mail is the fastest way that I know how.
HERE'S THE SCOOP: Tampons contain two things that are potentially harmful:
Rayon (for absorbency) and dioxin (a chemical used in bleaching the products). The tampon industry is convinced that we, as women, need bleached white products - they seem to think that we view the product as pure and clean. The problem here is that the dioxin produced in this bleaching process can lead to very harmful problems for a woman. Dioxin is potentially carcinogenic (cancer-associated) and is toxic to the immune and reproductive systems. It has been linked to endometriosis as well as lower sperm counts for men - for both, it breaks down the immune system. Last September the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that there really is no set "acceptable" level of exposure to dioxin - given that it is cumulative and slow to disintegrate, the real danger comes from repeated contact (Karen Houppert "Pulling the Plug on the Tampon Industry"). I'd say using about 5 tampons a day, five days a month, for 38 menstruating years is "repeated contact", wouldn't you? Rayon contributes to the danger of tampons and dioxin because it is a highly absorbent substance and therefore when fibers from the tampons are left behind in the vagina (as usually occurs), it creates a breeding ground for the dioxin, and stays in a lot longer than it would with just cotton tampons. This is also the reason why TSS (toxic shock syndrome) occurs.
WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVES? Using feminine hygiene products that aren't bleached (which causes the dioxin) and that are all cotton (the rayon will leave fibers and "breeding grounds" in the vagina). Other feminine hygiene products (pads/napkins)contain dioxin as well, but they are not nearly as dangerous since they are not in direct contact with the vagina. The pads/napkins need to stop being bleached, but obviously tampons are the most dangerous. So, what can you do if you can't give up using tampons? Use tampons that are made from 100% cotton, and that are unbleached. Un- fortunately, there are very, very few companies that make these safe tampons. They are usually only found in health food stores. Countries all over the world > (Sweden, Germany,British Columbia, etc.) have demanded a switch to this safer tampon, while the U.S. has decided to keep us in the dark about it. In 1989, activists in England mounted a campaign against chlorine bleaching. Six weeks and 50,000 letters later, the makers of sanitary products switched to oxygen bleaching (one of the green methods available) (Ms. magazine, May/June 1995). Personally I think it's time that the U.S. switches, and we need to make our voices heard.
WHAT TO DO NOW: Tell people. Everyone. Inform them. We are being manipulated by this industry and the government, let's do something about it! Tell everyone to write to the companies - Tampax (Tambrands), Playtex, O.B., Kotex. Call the 1-800 numbers on the boxes. LET THEM KNOW THAT WE DEMAND A SAFE PRODUCT - ALL-COTTON, UNBLEACHED TAMPONS.
Note that there are several dangers listed here. As if the ludicrous danger of asbestos fibers in tampons couldn't get your dander up, the confused discussion of dioxin and rayon fibers would certainly cause needless worries.
I shared this net rumor with Barbara Mikkelson, webmistress and urban legend aficionado. Her page on this, "Asbestos in Tampons," leaves no doubt as to the level of confusion and needless hysteria in the text above.
She immediately pegged the "secret asbestos additive" as a possible corollary of a similar rumor that Carma Labs puts fiberglass, ground up glass, or acid, into Carmex lip balm, to induce an addictive dependency in consumers. It's bunk. And so is the possibility of asbestos in Tampax tampons. Enough said.
During my inquiries, I was unable to get a response from Essence magazine about their "small article" on tampons. But I was able to track down the e-mail origin to "Penny," who adamantly denied having any expertise or responsibility in this hoax. And there, friends, is where we find this column's true topic.
As is often the case, Penny received the e-mail and then forwarded it to several of her closest online friends, who forwarded it again, and so on, and so on (so the hair care commercial goes). Her e-mail signature remained glued to the bottom of the alert ... making it look as if she were the original authoress. Her professional e-mail account ("email@example.com") is a disastrous crescendo note, adding authority to the entire message.
Anyone getting a half-lidded eyeful of her message, might mistakenly presume that Penny is with the American Cancer Society. Heck, surely they would knowabout the cancer-causing dangers of dioxins, and so,... so the logic continues, this warning must have pretty hefty validity.
Except that Penny knows nothing about the validity of her forwarded message, and freely admits it to anyone who asks her. She simply intended to send it "FYI," innocently hoping that subsequent readers would check her facts for her. She now replies to all replies with a denial that states,
"... By sending it I was not validating or invalidating the issue, but unfortunately since my message contains an automatic signature at the end, some have concluded that I am the originator, I AM NOT.
"Because I am employed by the American Chemical Society, some have concluded that there must be some truth to this, but again I say my intent was to pass along some information for the individual to further research if so inclined. For the record in NO WAY am I or the American Chemical Society associated with this claim."
(Penny's response also quotes a statement from Procter & Gamble that asserts that Tampax tampons DO NOT contain asbestos, and never have.)
Penny's dilemma reminds me of the "False Authority Syndrome," in which someone's nonexpert opinion or assumed authority is taken for granted, based on circumstantial indications (like one's e-mail address). In Rob Rosenberger's excellent essay on the topic, Computer Viruses and the "False Authority Syndrome", the dangers of assuming a writer's expertise solely on superficial criteria (job title, professional affiliation) are plain. Ask a man on the street a question about computer viruses; is his response conjecture or reasoned analysis? Now ask the same question of someone at COMDEX; is the response any more informed? Not necessarily.
Penny's name at the end of the hoax now gives it something it didn't have before -- the appearance of a press release by an organization (and individual) who should know better. The poor woman is now getting a deluge of inquiries, rendering her e-mail address almost useless.
Penny's learning the hard lesson that no one on the Internet deserves to. If you fail to think about the consequences, you might forward information that is at best inaccurate, and at worst actually harmful. Doing so from one's professional e-mail address can be downright disastrous. In this case, the information is inflammatory, and will probably result in upsetting many of those who receive it from a friend.
The lesson to be learned here is simple. Think before you click.
April 23, 1999
A reader recalled seeing some stories in a New York newspaper last year that strongly asserted the danger of dioxin poisoning from rayon tampons, despite FDA studies that contest the rumors.
I didn't find any references from last year online, but I did find some pretty hair-raising claims made prior to 1998. They may have been a source for last year's "scarelore." In a 1996 column in the NY Daily News, Collette Bouchez reported that traces of dioxin were left in rayon tampons as a result of the wood pulp bleaching process (see the FDA link page for more detail). Bouchez harped on claims made by Dr. Phillip Tierno, Jr., director of microbiology and immunology at New York University Medical Center, "and a renowned researcher on tampon safety," that trace amounts of dioxin (ANY amount) were harmful.
In a subsequent column early in 1997, Ms. Bouchez reported that New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney was introducing legislation mandating that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conduct independent studies to corroborate (or discredit) the previous studies conducted by tampon manufacturers. The complaint that Maloney and others made was that studies submitted to the FDA were provided by the major tampon manufacturers (Tambrands, International Playtex, Personal Products (a Johnson & Johnson company), and Kimberly Clark Corporation), who have an obvious interest in downplaying the risk.
Quoting Maloney, Tierno (again), and Arlie Schardt, "executive director of Environmental Media Services, a Washington based consumer watchdog group," Bouchez again raised the alarm that ANY trace amount of dioxin may be (therefore it MUST be!) harmful. Further, she trumpeted the claims that rayon-based tampons are linked to Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). The false warning distributed last year is reminiscent of Bouchez' columns -- compounding risk upon risk, presented in a one-sided fashion, to paint a terrifying picture
Even more questionable is the following quote: "Our testing of the Tambrands 100% all-cotton Tampax with applicator found that at least 10% of the solid material found in the overwrap is not cotton, but what currently remains an unidentifiable chemical compound." Who makes this scary claim? Richard Ruh, attorney for Naturacare, a British based all-cotton tampon company. Another objective source, without bias? Think again. Naturacare filed a lawsuit against Tambrands when they introduced the first US-produced "100% cotton tampon." Janet Loyd, VP of Tambrands, was quoted in response, "Our product is 100% cotton and we stand firmly behind both that product and our advertising of that product."
Setting aside skepticism of Big Government's ability to make reasonable statements based on clinical research, I think the information that the FDA provides is pretty reassuring. In a page that explicitly describes the Elemental chlorine bleaching method of processing rayon (which can leave traces of dioxin), the FDA found that "the potential for the final rayon product to contain dioxin is very low." Read on.
Though the FDA reports studies that found that less than 1 part in 3 trillion of dioxin were found in rayon tampons bleached by the Elemental chlorine bleaching method, this method ... is no longer used.
and Asbestos, Dioxin, & Toxic Shock Syndrome
This latest post on the FDA site also features some pretty stern language discounting the round of scarelore last year asserting that tampons contain asbestos fibers. Considering the manner in which their formal findings get ignored and discounted by professional writers on the medicine beat, can you fault the FDA for being a bit irritated?
January 05, 2001
The groundless fear of "Toxic Tampons"appears to be going strong, perhaps through the unethical "activism" of Bio Business International, which sells all-cotton tampons under the brand name Terra Femme. You may recall that Terra Femme was mentioned prominently in the original hoax letter, supposedly written up in Essence magazine. Two years ago it became increasingly evident that Terra Femme was using the phenomenon of cyberban legends to spread FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) on the Internet about popular brands of tampons, and um, also sell their own, expensive tampons. On the Terra Femme site, I found suspicious material from founder Wilhelmina (Willi) Nolan that was similar to the chain e-mail discussed above. Further, Forbes magazine writer Michael Fumento found indications on USENET that Terra Femme marketing head Roni Bregman was assisting feminists pursue a boycott ... of Terra Femme's competitors.
I wont' argue that Willi Nolan may bring "over 10 years as a respected social activist" to her position as founder and head of Terra Femme. Her product may indeed have qualities that make it a safer product. But -- big "but" -- politicking against her competitors while touting the angelic good graces of her own product calls her objectivity into question. I found overwhelming indications that Nolan has used activism and word of mouth to spread frightening information about conventional tampons. She has even been closely allied with Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), who introduced legislation requiring Federal testing of tampons and menstrual pads.
Hence, information on her site should not be taken for granted. When I began revisiting the various appearances of the "Toxic Tampons" chain e-mail, I found reasons to believe that Terra Femme was not quite such an disinterested bystander in the online hysteria. On one visit, I found that the Terra Femme site printed a version of the e-mail and encouraged visitors to forward it to all their friends. And THAT alone gave me reason to believe that the trail of the "Toxic Tampons" e-mail in fact started with Willi Nolan, founder of Terra Femme.
Case closed? Perhaps. The Terra Femme site hasn't been updated in years, and the Bio Business (biobiz.com) site is no longer active (it's registered to an owner in Hong Kong). But the chain e-mail keeps trickling across the Internet....
(A grateful tip of the deerstalker to Beth McNabb and Barbara Mikkelson for helping to tame the tampon terror. Rachel Smith tipped me off to the NY Daily News connection. And, as always, to Rob Rosenberger for his most excellent Computer Virus Myths home page.)