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Sanitary Pads: When Necessities Become Threats
[ Issue 156 Page 8 ] Monday, September 25, 2017, 16:29:33 Ji Yun Kim Head of Culture jiyunk@kaist.ac.kr

Last March, the Women’s Environmental Alliance announced the troubling results of a toxicity analysis on commercial sanitary pads. They had conducted a fund to finance this investigation in response to the growing suspicions of users of a specific brand of sanitary pads who had problems with their menstruation. The funding eventually raised 2.2 million KRW, and Man-Goo Kim, a Professor at Kangwon National University School of Environment, was commissioned to carry out the toxicity analysis of commercial sanitary pads for Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). The results showed that VOCs were detected from all 10 brands of sanitary pads tested.

Six months into the crisis, the situation has not gotten any better. In August, Professor Kim publicly revealed the name of a specific brand, Lilian, speculated to have the highest VOC level in their products based on his investigation. This set off a chain of outraged responses from customers who have been using the Lilian sanitary pads. Customers demanded for appropriate responses from both the government and the company, and started preparing for a lawsuit against the company as well. However, with the chilly breeze of September came many more additions to the “toxic” list. Due to the endless requests, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS) revealed the rest of the brands on Professor Kim’s report; this meant that more companies — most popular brands — that had been tested along with Lilian, had VOCs detected from their products as well.

The public was infuriated. Sanitary pads are a necessity, and not many had doubted their safety until recently. Alongside the month-long controversy, all women eventually faced a decision: to either find out for themselves which sanitary pads are safe to use, or helplessly purchase the products found to contain VOCs. With information on the specific VOCs and other harmful substances contained in the problematic sanitary pads, many rushed to purchase international products that use organic, FDA-approved cotton, and are VOC-free. Eventually, the sanitary pads from these international brands were either sold out, or saw an exponential jump in prices. This alienated many who were late to purchase the VOC-free sanitary pads; though some went for reusable cotton sanitary pads and menstrual cups, these alternatives posed extremely high barriers of entry in terms of usage and maintenance. This chaos could be attributed to the lack of any public announcements and specific guidelines on the matter. It was up to the public to actively request, search and gather information about these sanitary pads to avoid being exposed to a potentially harmful necessity.

A few matters are still at hand before this issue can move forward. First, both the MFDS and Professor Kim agree that

Percentage change of sanitary pad sales (total vs premium)

 VOCs can indeed be found in the relevant brands of sanitary pads. However, the MFDS questions the credibility of Professor Kim’s experimental methodology in his tests. They claim that the methodology was not clear and there lacked an objective mutual validation of the results. Professor Kim claims, on the other hand, that his experiments were “based on official analysis methods that are in line with ISO international standards, accumulated over four years.” He was confident enough to be willing to meet with The Korean Society of Analytical Sciences for validation of his data if the situation calls for it in the future. Second, both the MFDS and Professor Kim agree on the need for further investigations on the actual harmfulness of the sanitary pads found to contain VOCs. Professor Kim states that his role extends only until the investigation of the presence of the toxic chemicals, and that the next step, which is to elucidate the actual effects of these chemicals on the human body is the responsibility of the MFDS. The MFDS plans to announce their human body risk analysis of the sanitary pads by the end of September. However, without any pre-determined harmfulness evaluation standards, the controversy is projected to continue even after the announcement.

The public have been experiencing helplessness and threat — “Chemophobia” — from a wide variety of commercial goods recently: humidifier sterilizer, eggs, sausages, and now sanitary pads. What made matters worse in this case was the fact that the public had demanded for the elucidation of the issue much earlier, as well as the disclosure of specific sanitary pad brands that use VOCs in their products. The different parties involved failed to take appropriate and spontaneous action and the public was left with no protective emergency measures. It is imperative that specific standards for the safety of sanitary pads and basic protocols for emergency response to jeopardized safety of commodities are established through this controversy.

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