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Disposable sanitary pad use in Africa: Health, economic and environmental hazards

Health-aware women are exploring more natural alternatives to the regular chemical and toxin-saturated versions of sanitary pads on the market
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In a documentary I watched recently, some representatives of a Global North NGO operating in an African country were shown in a rural setting commiserating with a teenage girl. The young lady was soon coerced into shedding tears in front of the camera. Zooming the camera into her face, the narrator stated that her tears were because of her inability to afford disposable sanitary pads during her monthly flow. It was the perfect publicity shot, perhaps desperately needed by the staff of the NGO to mobilize donor pity and sustain their payrolls. As I watched the clip, it occurred to me that while disposable sanitary pads are being actively promoted in African countries, many health-conscious women in the Global North are moving away from the use of such products. The rise in female gynecological problems, as well as increased awareness of environmental degradation, has led many health-aware women into exploring more natural alternatives to the regular chemical and toxin-saturated versions of sanitary pads on the market. This awareness needs to be brought to the attention of African women who now appear to be a major market for global sanitary pad manufacturing and marketing concerns.

Menstrual flow management in Africa

The management of menstruation among African women did not begin with the introduction of Western-styled disposable sanitary pads. Throughout Africa, women historically thrived and lived their lives in full during their period, except in instances where cultural requirements demanded otherwise. Prior to the invention of sanitary pads in the late 1800s, menstrual products used by African women did not differ much from the rest of the world. Women around the world took care of their monthly flow with natural, biodegradable products sourced from their immediate environment such as rags, cotton, knitted pads, rabbit hair and even some species of dried grass or sheep’s wool. For centuries, women across Africa used variations of these organic, biodegradable, mostly comfortable, materials to take care of their monthly flow, including cotton balls, cotton pieces, pieces of cotton fabrics, and other plant and animal-based products.

The evolution of disposable sanitary towels can be placed in the very recent history of the Global North. Nurses in search of solutions to the problem of excessive bleeding in patients came up with the idea of disposable pads. French nurses fashioned the first pads using wood pulp bandages, a cost-effective product that soaked up a lot of fluid. That innovation was quickly appropriated by commercial producers, and by 1888, women could buy their first disposable pads across Europe.

Over the years, the sanitary towel industry around the world has become a multi-trillion-dollar manufacturing and marketing sector. Competition-driven innovation and the drive for more profit have led to the churning out of sanitary towels steeped in bleach and other toxic chemicals certified to be harmful to women and the environment.

Useful products or health hazards?

Today, there is a general agreement among experts that disposable sanitary pads can pose a health hazard to women, constitutes an environmental menace, and causes an economic drain on individuals, families, and nations. A recent research published in Reproductive Toxicology found that several popular types of menstruation pads contain high concentrations of chemicals known to cause developmental and reproductive damage. The research was conducted on more than ten sanitary towel brands available in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Several toxic chemicals were detected in these sanitary towels at levels known to impair developmental and reproductive health. These chemicals include volatile compounds such as xylene, toluene, and methylene chloride. These compounds have been confirmed by the United States’ Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be so harmful that they can cause renal failure and damage the central nervous system if inhaled over long periods of time.

Another compound present in most sanitary pads is dioxins. Dioxins are usually produced during the process of bleaching sanitary towels with chlorine and can be absorbed through the skin, straight into the bloodstream. Compared to what was thought in 1994, the chemical is now known to be ten times more likely to cause cancer. Non-cancer health impacts of dioxin include delayed development, birth abnormalities, hormone disruption, and immune cell suppression.  In humans, the toxin accumulates and is retained in adipose tissue and breast milk after repeated exposure.

Environmental impact

The environmental impact of disposable sanitary pads is becoming a source of grave concern to environmentalists. It has been found that disposable sanitary pads may contain as much as 90% plastic in the form of leak-proof bases and additional absorbent strips. Disposable pads can take 500–800 years to decompose in a landfill, while non-biodegradable materials it contains, such as plastic never do. It is common knowledge that microplastics represent a significant hazard to marine ecosystems. When burned, disposable sanitary pads release harmful toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, which are known to cause serious health issues. When flushed down the toilet, sanitary towels can block the sewage and/or seep toxic chemicals into underground water. Additionally, dioxins are released into the environment during the pulp bleaching process in the production of sanitary pads. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), no safe level for dioxin exposure exists.

Economic Impacts

Across Africa, families, individuals, communities, and nations indirectly bear the financial burden placed on women by disposable sanitary pad use. Records available in January of 2023, indicate that Namibia, for example, imported sanitary towels running into tens of millions of Rand between December 2021 and December 2022. This is not inclusive of the black market and other unaccounted imports of disposable sanitary products to the country. Namibia’s situation is similar to what other African countries spend monthly on the importation of sanitary towels. The aid industry has cashed in on the mental, emotional, and financial hardship imposed on women who have been made to believe that their menstrual flow can only be appropriately caught with products imported from the West.  The distribution of disposable sanitary towels across schools and colleges in the country and across the continent attracts much sympathy and donor funds.

Alternatives to disposable sanitary pads

Many women in the Global North are now exploring safer, more environmentally friendly, and economically advantageous options to taking care of their bodies during their monthly flow. Some products that have gained a lot of attention include the menstrual cup, reusable sanitary napkins, and pants. Many of these products are now readily available in online and brick-and-mortar stores across the Global North. Yet, the narrative pushed in Africa continues to promote health-harming, environmentally destructive, and economically draining disposable sanitary pads.

Menstrual cups are reusable for up to ten years; they are made of medical-grade silicone or rubber and are inserted to collect menstrual blood. The reusable menstrual cup is said to have the smallest ecological footprint, particularly in terms of trash.

The best reusable menstrual towels have a lifespan of about four years and are made with natural fibres. To use this, however, women need unhindered access to water for washing the towels.

In parts of Africa, women are beginning to produce and use reusable sanitary towels, but the narrative centres around poverty, the fact that only those who are too poor to afford disposable sanitary towels should stoop to the lower alternative of reusable sanitary towels. This narrative needs to be reversed with urgency.

Reusable period pants last about 2 years and should ideally be made with natural yarns. Like reusable pads, regular access to sufficient water is a necessity for thorough cleaning after each use. Studies have shown that when reusable pads made of fabric are not well taken care of, they can lead to urinary tract infections.

Besides being a healthier, less expensive, and environmentally sustainable option, supply chain issues may be alleviated in part by the widespread use of reusable menstruation products. This is because supplying women with disposable, one-time-use menstruation products each month is a huge issue in many parts of the continent, with regard to meeting the supply and demand balance.

Research in African traditional sanitary products

Much more than berthing the ship at already available reusable sanitary products, African researchers will need to explore and build innovation around available traditional menstrual products used by African women for centuries. In parts of Uganda, for instance, women use goatskin to trap menstrual blood. The goat skin is cleaned with cow ghee. Even some women who can afford to buy sanitary towels have a preference for goat skin which is known to do an excellent job of collecting blood without spillage or leaking. In parts of Zambia, some women use dried-out cow dung shaped into small pieces and wrapped in cloth. Cow patties are known to soak up a lot of blood.  The above are only two of what could be tens, if not hundreds, of traditional products that can be improved and scaled up in great measure across Africa for healthier, economically and environmentally friendly menstrual flow collection.

A woman’s monthly period is a part of her natural features. Greedy capitalists have problematized this natural phenomenon, turning it into a sickness-causing, expensive venture for women, with catastrophic effects on the environment. While women in many parts of the world are waking up to the negative consequences of disposable sanitary towels, many in Africa remain vulnerable. In the interest of women’s health and prosperity, as well as for the sake of environmental preservation, African women and other concerned parties must rise to the challenge of exploring available and even yet-to-be-popularized alternatives to the collection and disposal of menstrual blood.

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