How safe are sanitary pads in India?
Une question de santé publique.
En Inde, acheter des serviettes hygiéniques est un sujet tabou. Si les femmes osent à peine s’en servir, comment imaginer qu’elles veillent à leur composition ? C’est, malheureusement, une source d’inquiétude pour la santé publique tant les conditions de fabrication et les composants de ces produits sont mal réglementés.
Awoman enters the store, picks up a pack or mumbles the name of the brand she wants under her breath to the storekeeper, who proceeds to wrap the product in an old newspaper and hands it to her in a black plastic bag. She pays in awkward silence before hurriedly exiting the shop.
2. That’s typically how a woman buys a pack of sanitary napkins in India, where the topic of menstrual hygiene is usually not discussed in genteel company, let alone in public. So how does one begin to ask questions about what goes into the making of a product that people are hesitant to even mention aloud?
3. Further, since sanitary napkins are classified as “medical products”, companies are not required by law to disclose what goes into their making on product packs. There is no research to attest that sanitary napkins sold in India are safe. But the use of some chemicals in the feminine hygiene products raises questions over how safe they really are.
4. “It is a sanitary napkin. Its purpose is not just to absorb. Hygiene parameters of the product, of how safe they are, should be disclosed on the packets. Unfortunately, people choose sanitary napkins based on the cost, design and packaging,” said Bhawana Chanana, associate professor in the department of fabric and apparel science at Lady Irwin College, Delhi University.
5. “But the main consideration really should be hygiene— what’s the pH range, for instance. But women don’t ask simply because they are embarrassed and this has worked to the advantage of the manufacturers and sellers,” added Chanana, who said she has come across instances where products rejected in the US or Germany have been recycled in India.
6. In fact, in 2003, Ahmedabad-based Consumer Education and Research Centre tested 19 brands of sanitary napkins available in the market and found dirt and ants on some of the samples tested. When products in the market are certified by official agencies, consumers assume they are safe. In India, sanitary pads are tested as per standards that haven’t been updated since 1980.
7. “On the basis of that standard, all sanitary pads will pass the tests. This needs to change; more parameters need to be added. We need to have parameters to check how safe these products are,” said Jinoj K., chief executive officer of Wager Hygiene, a maker of health and personal care products including sanitary napkins. Jinoj is also the founder of Chennai-based Centre for Hygiene Research and Development.
8. The Bureau of Indian Standards 1980 specifies tests that are very basic. For instance, to determine whether the absorbent fillers in the sanitary napkins are lumpy and whether the surface of the pads feels soft and comfortable enough. However, there is no requirement to test the toxicity of ingredients.
9. The process involved in the making of sanitary pads in India hasn’t changed in decades. The only changes are cosmetic, said nanotechnologist Chandra Shekhar Sharma from the Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad’s department of chemical engineering. “No one denies the health hazards of using these commercially sold napkins. But scientifically there is much more to study before we reach a conclusion. Concerns about certain adverse effects are valid but not yet quantified,” he added.
10. In India, price plays an important role. And, pricing is decided based on what additional features the sanitary pads offer. “The MRP (maximum retail price) depends on the incremental product benefits offered by a particular product, which could be longer length, wider back, superior absorption and wetness protection, or gentleness on skin,” said a P&G India spokesperson. So the add-ons are mostly cosmetic, and not really hygiene related.
11. Even though all the leading brands in the Indian sanitary market are global ones and sell the same products worldwide, the quality of the chemicals used in India is believed to be inferior. According to a senior executive at one of the sanitary napkin makers, who has worked in both developing and developed countries for close to two decades, use of inferior quality components to reduce cost is not new and companies cannot be blamed as they do not need to comply with any specified safety or hygiene standards in India. Since only 12% of menstruating Indian women use sanitary napkins, questions haven’t been raised over how these pads are made, and consequently there isn’t much pressure on companies to come up with better quality products.
12. “Ninety per cent of those who don’t even have access to sanitary napkins are facing many more adverse effects than these 10-12% who are using the wrong ones,” said Padma Shri awardee Arunachalam Murugunantham, whose start-up Jayaashree Industries has manufactured more than 1,300 sanitary pads machines that are installed across 27 states in India and seven other countries. “We are fighting to make sanitary pads accessible to every woman,” he added. Even the 12% of Indian women who have access to these products—each one would be using on average 11,000-17,000 sanitary napkins in her lifetime—deserve to know what goes onto and into their bodies.
In India, price plays an important role.
A matter of public health.