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Tampons are among the products researchers studied for potential PFAS contamination. Natalie JEFFCOTT/Stocksy
  • Researchers said they found perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a potentially harmful substance, in certain period products, including the packaging for those items.
  • PFAS have been linked to potential health problems, including cancer, liver and kidney damage, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and immune system dysfunction.
  • Experts say you can lower your exposure to PFAS by making sure water, food, and packaged products do not contain these “forever chemicals.”

Perfolyfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are called forever chemicals because of their extended time to break down.

In a new study led by Graham Peaslee, PhD, a professor at Notre Dame University in Indiana, researchers said they examined period products and detected PFAS in some of them.

They presented their findings this week at the 2023 American Chemical Society fall meeting. The research hasn’t been published yet in a peer-reviewed journal.

The scientists examined more than 100 period products and their packaging, looking for fluorinated compounds, an indicator of potentially harmful perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

The products examined included tampons, pads, reusable underwear, and menstrual cups.

The researchers noted that labels for period products do not typically list ingredients. Therefore, consumers do not know what is in the product.

The researchers said the results showed that many of the products did not have polyfluoroalkyl.

However, the researchers said they were surprised at the presence of it in the wrappers for some pads and tampons as well as in the outer layers of some of the period underwear.

The research team reported high concentrations in some products, especially in packaging and the outer layers.

They hypothesize that manufacturers add fluorine to keep moisture out and keep the product dry. When they add fluorine to the outer layers of the products, it could keep blood from escaping the inner layers and spreading to clothing.

“PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, found in period products — liners pads, tampons, cups, and underwear — has long been a topic of conversation around the water cooler for its potentially harmful effects on the user, said Dr. Sherry Ross, an OB-GYN and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California.

“PFAS’s harmful ‘forever chemicals’ can potentially linger in the body and cause hormonal and reproductive problems, immune suppression, and potential cancer risks.”

“It’s hard to know whether the period products contain PFAS since it’s not listed on the ingredient list,” Dr. Ross told Medical News Today.

“There is a lack of scientific research showing the exact association between PFAS intake and harmful medical conditions.”

It is unknown whether PFAS can pass through different materials through the skin. Researchers have also found PFAS in school uniforms and firefighting gear.

These chemicals have been linked to potential health problems, including an increased risk of:

  • cancer
  • liver and kidney damage
  • cardiovascular disease
  • obesity
  • diabetes
  • immune system dysfunction

“I don’t think the information presented here, or that which will be presented at the meeting by this presenter, does anything more than suggest that more [research] is needed to truly dial into whether this is a problem,” Dr. Randy Fiorentino, the physician site director with St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, told MNT.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has voiced concerns about PFAS in the water supply.

The agency says “Many PFAS, including perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), are a concern” because they:

  • do not break down in the environment
  • can move through soils and contaminate drinking water sources
  • build up (bioaccumulate) in fish and wildlife

“PFAS are found in rivers and lakes and many animals on land and in the water,” CDC officials added.

“It seems the focus of the research is on the environmental effects when these compounds hit the landfills,” Dr. Fiorentino said.

“As far as concerns to women’s health, I think we would have to learn about the concentration of PFAS’s in these products and the route and concentration of their absorption.”

Fluoride is actually a safe element in small daily amounts. So, it may be unlikely that this poses a significant risk to women’s health. In fact, the study’s summary suggests that they will be considering the question of fluoridated compounds in wrappers over those found in the products themselves. Again, pointing to the environmental risks.”

— Dr. Randy Fiorentino, obstetrician-gynecologist

There are steps you can take to reduce your exposure to PFAS.

Officials at the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have a number of recommendations:

Recommendations on reducing your risk of PFAS exposure
Avoid drinking contaminated water
Don’t eat fish from contaminated waters
Avoid food from animals exposed to PFAS
Avoid products packaged with PFAS materials

“There are many options when selecting period products, using organic and natural products which are generally free of synthetic chemicals, menstrual cups, and reusable period underwear should be considered,” Dr. Ross said. “Looking for ‘PFAS-and fluorinated free’ products is also a good strategy for finding safe alternatives.”

“It’s reassuring that the majority of period products do not contain PFAS,” Dr. Ross added. “You can never be too safe when it comes to using period products that may put your health at risk.”