Femfacts
18 Oct 2018

Do tampons really cause cancer?

Many publications have circulated claims that sanitary products contain cancer causing chemicals. This is a myth based on a video that is no longer available and a “preliminary study” that’s nowhere to be found.

Lydia Morrish
Lydia Morrish NewsMavens, United Kingdom
 Do tampons really cause cancer? - NewsMavens
Tampon, PixaBay

A growing pool of claims about women’s health are relying on pseudoscience or misconceptions, enlivening a dispute about the market of information about women’s bodies. One of the biggest names under scrutiny is Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness website Goop which has been promoting advice and products to women based on falsities. The tampon scare, however, has a far wider reach. Women all over the world are concerned that using them will result in cancer although the evidence is so flimsy it cannot be verified.

What’s the claim?

An ongoing claim in international and European media is that 85% of tampons and female hygiene products are contaminated with potentially carcinogenic glyphosate, one of the most-used herbicides in the world. It is used on crops for plant growth and ripening.

In 2015, the environmental website EcoWatch published a claim that “85% of tampons contain Monsanto’s‘cancer-causing’ glyphosate”, citing Revolution News as the source. A similar claim was published in several other outlets, including RT, the Russian international TV network. The piece by EcoWatch is still being shared widely on social media. The claim has been published repeatedly in the media and on social networks, reaching an immense number of people. These include Huffington Post Canada and the women’s health website HelloFlo. Meanwhile, an article by the Croatian website Novi SvjetskiPoredak (New World Order), which has more than 173,000 Facebook followers, has stated the same claim, along with how glyphosate can “enter the body” through tampons.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop also plugged the claim that 85% of tampons contain glyphosate and have potentially carcinogenic effects. The website’s advisor, Dr Maggie Ney, a “naturopathic” doctor, even goes as far to link glyphosate in tampons to health conditions such as endometriosis.

At this point, we can safely say that the concern has gone mainstream, possibly leading many women around the world to believe that tampons are cancerous because they are made of cotton that has been treated with glyphosate.

Where does the claim come from?

The claim that 85% of tampons contain glyphosate originates from Dr Damian Marino, a University of La Plata (UNLP) researcher from Argentina.

A video recording of his presentation at the 3rd National Congress of Physicians of Fumigated Towns, held in Buenos Aires on October 15-17, 2015, served as the primary source of the claim published on EcoWatch, RT and other outlets. The video is no longer available, but the page has been saved in WebArchive. The video description says that Dr. Damian Marino “announced, in a casual way, some findings of a research they were doing: Presence of glyphosate and/or AMPA in cotton, feminine towels, tampons and even in sterile gauzes for medicinal use”.

It’s unclear whether the announced research study on glyphosate in cotton products was ever completed and we haven’t found any evidence that it was ever published. NewsMavens contacted the University of La Plata and Dr Damian Marino with an inquiry about the research, but has not yet received a response.

There are, however, some pieces of information available about the presentation of the findings. According to the conference agenda, Marino’s presentation was titled  “Agrotóxicos en su mesa” (“Agrochemicals on your table”) and was a part of a session titled “Agrotóxicos y Alimentos” (“Agrochemicals and food”), indicating that the focus of his presentation was on pesticides in food. The “casually” presented findings on glyphosate in cotton products appear to have been a sideline topic, but it became the main takeaway of the conference in worldwide media coverage.

A slideshow, dated 2016, and attributed to Dr Marino also points to the public’s mistaken conclusions about his research findings. In a set of slides titled “Case Study 5: Glyphosate and AMPA in Cotton -- First study in the world” the findings on glyphosate in cotton products are presented right before the concluding remarks. The information presented on this topic is merely a vague “infograph” where sanitary products, cotton buds, bandages and gauze pads are pictured next to the percentages of glyphosate and its metabolite AMPA, without any further explanation.It shows the 85% figure in association with all kinds of cotton -- not tampons in particular.

A Facebook post by an anti-Monsanto page was also shared at this time included Marino’s video and provides additional insight into the content of his 2015 presentation. It cites Marino’s statement that they found13µg/kg (0.013 mg/kg) of glyphosate in unprocessed cotton, and 17 µg/kg (0.017 mg/kg) in cotton gauze. There are no quotes on the amount of the substance found in tampons.

Dr Jen Gunter, a Californian gynaecologist and regular debunker of claims made on Paltrow’s Goop, watched the video while it was still online and wrote on her blog that her limited knowledge of Spanish allowed her to conclude that Marino reported a maximum of 4 µg/kg (0.004 mg/kg) of combined glyphosate and AMPA in menstrual products.

To sum it up – according to all available information, the claim that glyphosate is present in 85% of tampons is a misinterpretation of the original claim that it was found in 85% of various cotton products. The claim stems from a ten minute video presentation of research that was never published or peer reviewed. The amounts of glyphosate in hygiene products, reported in the presentation, varied from 0.013 to 0.004 mg/kg.

What are the facts?

The European Food Safety Authority advises that a safe amount of glyphosate to ingest with food is 0.5 mg/kg body weight per day. If the average woman weighs 50 kg, she can safely eat 25 mg of glyphosate a day, according to the guidelines. Marino’s own research puts the amount of glyphosate in cotton products at a rate way below that threshold.

Dr Gunter estimates that the potential maximum daily exposure from tampons is 0.000312 mg of glyphosate. Therefore, Dr Gunter suggests, even a lifetime of heavy tampon use doesn’t approach the amount allowed for even one day of oral intake. Dr Ian Musgrave, a senior lecturer in Pharmacology, at the University of Adelaide in Australia, told NewsMavens:

“Various sources claim to have found glyphosate in a variety of materials, but it is unclear if they have used methods that are appropriate and are not seeing false positives. Even if the methods were appropriate, the levels reported are [enormously] below any toxic threshold, and will not be of concern, especially as glyphosate is very poorly absorbed."

According to The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), there is “sufficient evidence" that glyphosate causes cancer in animals. A 2015 study by the IARC, widely cited by anti-glyphosate campaigners, found evidence linking the chemical to the development of tumors in rats, but it is yet to find that glyphosate is a direct cause of cancer in humans. In 2016, WHO said it could not conclude glyphosate was carcinogenic in mammals. It could not, however, exclude the possibility that it would be toxic to mice “at very high doses”.

Marino’s research, which apparently focused on glyphosate in an array of products, was never published for peer review or subjected to scientific scrutiny. 

There have been no subsequent studies performed to confirm that glyphosate is indeed present in 85% of cotton products. This unsubstantiated claim has evolved into a myth that 85% of tampons may be carcinogenic, without any evidence. 

If we give Marino’s findings the benefit of the doubt and accept that glyphosate was found in 85% of the  cotton products he tested (whichever those were), the available information still does not indicate that Marino found anything close to alarming levels of glyphosate in sanitary products. 

“The levels found were minute (micrograms per kilogram cotton), as tampons are generally on the order of 15 grams or less. Even if all the glyphosate present in the cotton of the tampons was absorbed -- which is unlikely, as glyphosate strongly binds to the fibers and less than 20% will be absorbed by the vaginal epithelium -- the amount absorbed would be a million times less than the levels shown to have *any* toxicological effects in animals," Dr Ian Musgrave told NewsMavens.

Taken together, we can see that the myth of toxic tampons has been built on an incorrect interpretation of a claim made in one 10 minute video which is no longer available,by an author who has not made any effort to present his research in a verifiable form that would allow the public to check if the methodology was sound and the conclusions correct. And even if they were, they do not point to any health risk from cotton-based tampons.

We rate these articles, which present unverified claims as facts, as pseudoscience and disinformation

Have you found a misleading and sexist article, interview or social media tweet that makes you angry? Send us the link and #Femfacts will do something about it.

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