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How Safe Are Sanitary Napkins For The Women And The Environment?

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In the past couple of years, there have been a lot of awareness campaigns on menstrual hygiene with many non-profit organizations, celebrities and different organizations joining hands to remove the taboo surrounding menstruation. Educational campaigns on the importance of using sanitary napkins (the most commonly available hygiene product in India) have picked up a lot recently; especially in rural areas, where woman still use ash, sawdust or an unhygienic piece of cloth as alternatives.

But, in our attempt to solve one problem of making sanitary napkins accessible to women everywhere, we have ended up creating another problem we aren’t even close to solving: How safe are these napkins, for the women and the environment? While removing the stigma and ensuring menstrual hygiene for every woman is definitely a step in the right direction, sadly, there is still not enough awareness or education on the problems and dangers associated with the usage of synthetic sanitary napkins.

Being the most commonly used menstrual product in India, it is surprising how little awareness there is on the side effects and dangers a sanitary pad poses. The first time I realised the gravity of the situation was when Dia Mirza (UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador for India) spoke about it earlier this year. Intrigued I read about it and realized that this is a volcano waiting to burst.

As these are considered a medical product, companies do not have to list the components on the pack. Hence, most people are not aware of the items used to manufacture this product. A sanitary napkin is made up of multiple layers. Typically, the pad contains SAPs (super absorbent polymers), rayon and viscose. SAP is added because of its capacity to hold water and rayon is used in bleaching the cotton/wood pulp (which is used for making an absorbent core) to make it look whiter and hence, more appealing.

But all these end up causing more harm than good. Rayon when used for bleaching, releases dioxins in low levels. Dioxin is responsible for causing pelvic inflammatory disease, infections, impaired fertility. The World Health Organization lists dioxin as one of the dirty dozen- a group of dangerous chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants.

There are many other problems associated with using sanitary napkins for example:

  1. The pads are scented which can cause infections in vagina.
  2. The skin around the vagina is thin with numerous blood vessels and chemicals can directly enter the bloodstream from the
  3. Prolonged contact with SAPs has been also linked with skin reactions such as rashes.
  4. Synthetic and plastic restricts air flow and traps heat and dampness, causing yeast and bacteria growth in the vaginal area.

But the problem doesn’t end here. According to Solid Waste Management(SWM) rules, sanitary pads waste comes under the category of Domestic Hazardous Waste. Right now there is no separate way prescribed to dispose of them. So, out it goes with all the household garbage. This causes serious health issues for the waste pickers when they segregate the waste; exposing them to infection-causing microbes, leading to diseases like Hepatitis, E.coli infection, Salmonella infection, Typhoid, etc. Recently, the Red Dot Campaign was launched in Pune which encouraged women to throw sanitary pads in a ‘red dot marked’ packet, so that they could be easily identified and segregated.

The used pads are then finally moved to landfills on the outskirts of the city, where they stay for hundreds of years. SAPs are petroleum-based materials that do not degrade easily. Let’s just say, a pad used by a woman will not be decomposed in her lifetime or her kids or their kids. Now, imagine the extent of plastic pollution we are creating/have created, especially when one pad is said to be equivalent to 4 plastic bags. Every sanitary napkin carries two grams of non-biodegradable plastic. Multiply that with an average of 8-10 pads per menstruating women every month and let that sink in.

Incineration (controlled burning) is another option being explored by the government. A lot of mini incinerators have also been introduced in the market recently, primarily to be used in schools and other educational institutes. But there is no way to check on the burning right now. There are no provisions to monitor the emissions from these incinerators.

According to WHO, all health-related waste should be incinerated only at temperatures over 800 degrees, because at lower temperatures they typically release poisonous gases including dioxins and furans and there is no check right now to ensure the temperature regulations. So, that brings us back to square one. Synthetic sanitary napkins are a problem. Period.

So, what are the alternatives to sanitary napkins? Tampons and menstrual cups are available alternatives but the acceptance for these products among women and girls is low. Plus, there are some irritation and allergies associated with both. So, what is the alternative for a sanitary pad then? Definitely not a pad made of plastic, to begin with.

There are a number of eco-friendly alternatives available in the market today. Sathi Pads, made of banana fibre is one such option. According to the manufacturers, banana fibre uses six times less water per ton produced than cotton, and 10 times less fertilizers. Another advantage of using the product is that it decomposes within six months of disposing of! The core is not white, but light brown in colour and it specifically mentions that the pad is not bleached. There is no layer or mesh on it, unlike usual pads but the absorbent core is very thick with great absorption capacity.

However, the manufactures should provide the pads in a separate wrapper for the disposal of each napkin following the SWM rules which is one area I found these pads lacking. Another issue with these pads is that they come in a single standard size which most women will not be comfortable with. These can be ordered via their website at ₹178 for a pack of eight pads.

Another available alternative is the Eco Femme, a colourful cloth pad which comes in various sizes. The top and the other absorbent layers are made of organic, natural (unbleached) cotton flannel. Our grandmothers used to wear similar cloth pads and these are now being considered as a great option if washed and dried properly. The best part about cloth pads is they are extremely safe. Cost of these pads ranges from ₹240 to ₹295 per pad.  You can easily order them from their website.

The stripy fabric of this product is not organically certified yet and the manufacturers are working to resolve this issue. A major problem in rural areas is that women use homemade cotton pads but because of the stigma associated with it, they do not dry it out properly in the sun. Also, many working women do not prefer cloth pads to avoid the hassle of washing and rewashing during travel and long working days

Aakar Innovations Pvt. Ltd. manufactures another variant christened ANANDI, which are cost-effective, biodegradable, 100% compostable and are made from agricultural waste. No fancy packaging ensures the cost remains low making it affordable for everyone but they are not easily available in all the states yet. The best part is that these pads start decomposing within 90-180 days of disposal. Even though the pads are a little stiff they function well.

Orders can be placed by sending a request at their email ID: sales@aakarinnovations.com and sales@aakarinnovations.com A pack (eight pads) of regular Anandi Pads costs ₹25-28 and Anandi eco plus costs ₹35-40. The price variance is because of the tax structure difference across states.

Heyday pads are made of only corn and bamboo fibre and come in a colourful cardboard box. They took their tagline seriously (Being there through thick and thin) and come in two variants: Ultra Thin and Maxi Fluff to suit different requirements. The cost is comparable to synthetic pads available in the market, with 7 pads costing under ₹85 and 14 pads under ₹165. They can be ordered from their website. The best part is, they are extremely soft against the skin and come in individual wrappers, which are also made of cornstarch. These pads will decompose after 6 months of disposal. They also have two pack sizes of 7 pads and 14 pads for both the variants.

Carmesi pads are also made from corn starch and bamboo fibre. They come in two sizes, regular and XL and it is possible to buy a combo box. A box of 10 pads ( either of the two or five each ) costs ₹300 and a big box of 120 pads costs ₹2500 and comes in a storage box. There are extra charges on shipping. The cost is high because they have spent on aesthetics and packaging. The good part is they come with individual biodegradable disposal bag for each pad.

The central government has also launched a biodegradable sanitary pad ‘Suvidha‘ this International Women’s Day, priced at ₹2.50 per pad. It will be available at Pradhan Mantri Bhartiya Janaushadhi centres across the country.

With the sudden focus on the increasing amount of plastic around us, it won’t be long before sanitary pads become a focus area too. It’s time for the MNC giants with their huge research and development setups to come up with innovations and bring about some changes in their hygiene products too. Meanwhile, there is no dearth of options to use. The only thing lacking is awareness. Next time, you educate someone on menstrual hygiene; make sure you also talk about the other side of it, the one that will soon be a problem.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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