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Toxic Shock Syndrome Scares Inspire a New Bill for Tampon Transparency

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Robin Danielson died nearly nearly 20 years ago from Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), the rare-but-scary side effect of using a tampon that has terrified girls for years. In her honor (and name), legislation to better regulate the feminine hygiene industry was proposed that same year to protect women from TSS and other health problems. It was rejected in 1998 and eight more times since then, but the Robin Danielson bill is now up for debate in Congress again. (Also this week in Congress, The FDA Might Start Monitoring Your Makeup.)

For something that we use on a monthly basis, tampons and pads aren't something most of us put much thought into—a fact that has allowed manufacturers to have a similarly blasé attitude, says Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), who has reintroduced the Robin Danielson bill for the tenth time.

"We need more dedicated and substantial research to address unanswered health concerns regarding the safety of feminine hygiene products," Maloney told RH Reality Check, referring not just to killer bacterial infections like Toxic Shock Syndrome but also to smaller risks like the chemicals used to bleach the cotton in tampons or possible carcinogens in fragrances. "American women spend well over $2 billion per year on feminine hygiene products, and the average woman will use over 16,800 tampons and pads over the course of her lifetime. Despite this large investment and high usage, there has been limited research on the potential health risks these products may pose to women." (And see 13 Questions You're Too Embarrassed to Ask Your Ob-Gyn.)

Part of the lack of data may be because tampons and other feminine hygiene products are considered personal medical devices and therefore aren't subject to FDA testing and oversight. Currently, manufacturers aren't required to list the ingredients, processes, or chemicals used, nor do they have to make internal testing reports public. The Robin Danielson Bill would require companies to disclose ingredients and would mandate independent testing of all feminine hygiene products with all reports being publicly available. Maloney is hoping that the passage of the bill will force companies to be more transparent and give women answers about what exactly it is we're putting up our most sensitive areas.

Maloney's rep says she can't comment on why the bill hasn't passed during the previous nine attempts, but Chris Bobel, the president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, wrote in her 2010 book New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation that the failure to pass could be "a result of activist inattention." She adds that people are more concerned about the companies themselves than passing legislation to deal with the industry as a whole. There are also concerns that imposing additional regulations will increase the price of these basic necessities.

But the real reason may be a lot simpler than that: In a 2014 article in the National Journal, Maloney's office pointed out that men are often uncomfortable discussing female biology, and Congress is more than 80 percent male. They wrote then that "the biggest hurdle has been the unwillingness of lawmakers to broach what could be considered an uncomfortable subject. This is not exactly something congresspeople want go to the floor and talk about."

But what's becoming abundantly clear from viral social media campaigns about periods, tampon ads, and even grocery store conversations is that we not only want to talk about it, we need to talk about it. This is why we're hoping the tenth time's the charm! Want to help make sure of that? Sign the petition at Change.org.

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