Tampons, nappies and chemicals – how to avoid a toxic mix

Two investigations in France have found unsafe levels of toxic chemicals in tampons and nappies; product groups that really should be clean.

Blanca Morales, EEB and BEUC Ecolabel expert, explains the risks and how to avoid them.

Nappies can have unsafe levels of dangerous chemicals – that was the finding of a shock report that became an international news story in January.

In a way, it isn’t a shock. Of the 80,000 or so chemicals that form the building blocks of all the consumer products, a great many are readily absorbed by the human body and many are linked to modern epidemics such as diabetes, breast and prostate cancer, according to a new article for the Globe and Mail.

But the story did stand out to me, a mother of three children. I know that official safety levels for chemical exposure are based on adults, not kids. And kids, because of their size, metabolism and tender developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals.

Makers of non-eco nappies are free to use a number of toxic substances, dyes and bleaches linked to allergic reactions, skin irritations, toxic shock syndrome, liver damage and immune system suppression.

Combinations of substances, like that found by the French, can be even more problematic. We are aware of research to be announced soon that suggests that chemical cocktails are more harmful than first thought.

Thankfully, there is already a way to cut out chemicals in nappies thanks to the EU Ecolabel. Ecolabel rules stop nappy makers using all of the chemicals found by the French authorities. No fragrances are allowed, as these substances can trigger allergies.

Formaldehyde and some classes of phthalates are strictly forbidden for the adhesive materials. Where cotton is used, this must be organic, which means none of the controversial pesticide glyphosate. The EU Ecolabel also limits the use of dyes and inks to areas that are not in direct contact with the skin and only if the dye serves a specific function such as indicating wetness or showing the landing zones for tape. Finally, super absorbent polymers must be kept to a minimum threshold. The same rules apply to Ecolabelled tampons and sanitary pads. That’s good news not only because a different French investigation published yesterday, this time from consumer association 60 Millions de Consommateurs, found a similar cocktail of unwanted chemicals in tampons. The same French agency warning about chemicals in nappies earlier confirmed that 100% of the substances, including toxic chemicals, released from sanitary products are absorbed by the body.

And there is increasing evidence to suggest that trace levels of toxins, over time, could pose a significant health risk to those who use them, according to the Environmental Paper Network. The threat was examined in a popular French documentary.

  Consumer and environmental NGOs help shape Ecolabel rules for all types of products. They must meet environmental standards throughout their lifecycle, from material extraction to production, distribution to disposal. The rules are not perfect, but are a good way for people to cut through greenwash and harness positive purchasing power.

They are regularly made more strict, most recently for paper products. Of course using less and longer is normally the greenest option. For sanitary products, shoppers may want to look for packs marked TCF, or total chlorine free, which will reduce the risk of toxic dioxins, a byproduct of bleaching.

This is not yet part of EU Ecolabel criteria, or that of Nordic Swan or even Blue Angel labels, yet it is something the French authorities recommended for safer nappies. Another area for improvement is sustainable forestry, still way too low on EU Ecolabel sanitary products. I was outvoted during negotiations and insufficient standards were approved.

Thankfully, all the EU Ecolabel and Nordic Swan nappies I find in shops carry the FSC mark separately. We hope both FSC and TCF rules will be included when EU Ecolabel standards are revised in the coming two years.

Reusable nappies are of course a great alternative to buying new. Consumer confidence is high and Ecolabel products are surging. There are now a third more products and services sporting an EU Ecolabel in the year to September 2018, compared to the year before. Growth has nearly doubled since 2016, up by 85%. There are 26 product groups covering cleaning products and services, home and garden products, clothing paper and even tourism services. Companies have to win independent accreditation.