Breakthrough Study Uncovers “Forever Chemicals” in Feminine Hygiene Products

In a groundbreaking investigation, researchers at the University of Notre Dame have unveiled shocking findings about the presence of perfluorinated substances (PFAS), famously dubbed “forever chemicals,” in a wide array of feminine hygiene products. This revelation has ignited concerns about potential health risks and environmental impacts.

Graham Peaslee, a distinguished professor of physics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Notre Dame, along with graduate student Alyssa Wicks, unveiled their remarkable discoveries at a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society. Their findings are now on the cusp of being submitted for rigorous peer-reviewed publication.

The study delved deep, scrutinizing over 100 samples encompassing various packaging and individual products, ranging from menstrual underwear and pads to tampons and menstrual cups. The results were both startling and alarming.

A striking discovery was the relatively high levels of total fluorine detected in a specific subset of period underwear. These escalated levels signaled the deliberate use of polymeric PFAS, chemicals added directly to the synthetic fabric during production. Astonishingly, some instances showcased total fluorine concentrations exceeding 100,000 parts per million, equivalent to an astonishing 10 percent of the product’s composition.

Notably, not all tested products displayed this intentional fluorination. Certain disposable and reusable pads, incontinence underwear, and wrappers exhibited varying degrees of intentional fluorination as part of their treatment, while others remained devoid of any detectable fluorine.

Professor Peaslee emphatically emphasized, “We found a high level of fluorine content in only some of the products tested, which tells us treating these products with PFAS is not essential.” Given the well-documented health hazards associated with PFAS, including their accumulation in the bloodstream and their linkage to severe health issues, he urged a decisive shift away from non-essential utilization of PFAS in consumer products.

Complicating matters further, the study detected instances of “unintentional fluorine contamination” in certain products. This phenomenon could potentially arise from the use of polymer processing aids. Items such as period underwear, disposable pads, tampon applicators, incontinence pads, and plastic wrappers exhibited traces of unintentional fluorine contamination.

While this study marks a significant stride, it’s not the first of its kind. Earlier this year, researchers in China unveiled similar findings, albeit focusing predominantly on Chinese-made products. Notably, Professor Peaslee’s prior work in 2019 had also identified PFAS treatment in a pair of Thinx brand period underwear.

The research team employed an innovative particle-induced gamma-ray emission spectroscopy method developed by Professor Peaslee himself to swiftly measure total fluorine content. Further analysis encompassed a subset of 42 products, utilizing liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry for targeted assessment of specific PFAS types. Alyssa Wicks, the graduate student responsible for this meticulous work, confirmed that her targeted PFAS analysis reaffirmed the origin of the total fluorine from the use of both polymeric and non-polymeric PFAS in the products.

Wicks acknowledged the significance of the findings while acknowledging the need for a larger-scale study to substantiate broader conclusions about the feminine hygiene product industry.

The implications of this study reverberate far and wide. Perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are not only a public health concern but also a looming environmental threat. With applications primarily for their water-resistant and nonstick properties, PFAS chemicals have been associated with a host of detrimental health outcomes, from cancer to developmental delays.

While the extent of dermal absorption of specific PFAS remains uncertain, direct exposure through the skin is a distinct possibility. Moreover, as with other PFAS-treated items, these feminine hygiene products find their way into landfills, raising concerns about eventual contamination of soil, irrigation water, and drinking water sources, affecting not only users but the general population.

In essence, this groundbreaking study challenges the status quo and calls for a reevaluation of the use of PFAS in consumer products. The findings underscore the urgency to protect both human health and the environment from the pervasive influence of “forever chemicals.” As we await further research, it is clear that the quest to understand and mitigate the impact of PFAS is far from over.



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