Ensuring menstrual products are safe, affordable and accessible

Interview with Alexandra Gorman Scranton, the Director of Science and Research for Women’s Voices for the Earth

Interviewer for ptfperiod.info was Hailey Morton.

Interviewer: Can you tell me a little bit about Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) and the current projects or initiatives of the organization?

Alexandra Scranton: Women’s Voices for the Earth was founded in 1995 and our mission is to amplify women’s voices to eliminate the toxic chemicals which harm our health and communities.  We focus our work on the health impacts of toxic chemicals found in products disproportionately used by women and how many of these products further disproportionately impact the health of women of color, or lower-income communities . So we have worked on chemicals in cosmetics for a long time – with a more recent focus specifically on impacts to hair and nail salon workers from their occupational exposure to beauty products.  We also work on toxic chemicals in cleaning products. And our newest campaign has been our work on menstrual and intimate care products. In all our campaigns we work to educate the public to help people avoid unnecessary exposures, as well as working with product manufacturers to get them to use inherently safer chemicals.  And finally we work on legislative efforts at both the state and federal levels to better regulate the use of toxic chemicals in products.

Interviewer: What is your position and role within the organization?

Alexandra Scranton: I’m the Director of Science and Research, and I’ve been on staff for about 19 years. My role is really looking at the science, combing through the medical literature, and looking at products as well – looking for ingredients of concern and where we’re being exposed to them, and then looking for what we know about those ingredients. It’s really about pulling together what we know about the chemicals that are in products, what we are being exposed to, and then what we know about those chemicals from other sources, whether it’s animal testing or other human studies in which people have been exposed to these chemicals, and seeing what health impacts these chemicals might have. And our goal is raising that awareness with companies and with women using these products to say: Are there some better alternatives? Can we be using some inherently safer chemicals in these products?; and why are we taking a risk on some of these chemicals? Even if we don’t have a study that proves this is going to lead to greater miscarriages, etc.,  there’s a greater risk that it might, and maybe we should be looking more carefully at using safer chemicals in some of these products.

Interviewer: Why take the chance if there’s even a risk?

Alexandra Scranton: Exactly. Where safer alternatives exist. And where safer alternatives don’t exist – what kind of innovation do we need to drive [and] where do we need safer chemicals? So I pull a lot of that research together and interpret it, and I write a lot of reports for the organization that pull together that information in more digestible [ways], and help us create fact sheets and educate other people on these issues. A lot of good information is buried in these journals that don’t get read outside of academic settings, so we try to pull that out as much as we can. 

Interviewer: Our website at www.ptfperiod.info is focused on plastic- and toxic-free periods. I went on the Women’s Voices for the Earth website and there’s a section dedicated to menstrual equity. What is menstrual equity and why would you say it’s important?

Alexandra Scranton: That’s a really good question. It’s a fairly new term that’s been coming up and so I think it is still fully being defined. But it basically refers to the affordability, accessibility, and safety of menstrual products. There’s a lot to it. There [are] a lot of issues around menstrual products and menstrual care – problems that occur due to overall cultural taboos that make people feel ashamed about what their bodies are doing. And so menstrual equity is really [the] concept of saying we need to make this a more accessible part of our everyday lives because it is a completely natural phenomenon, and nothing that requires shame, and looking at all the various ramifications of those cultural taboos and how they play out in terms of [it being] physically difficult to get products, having products that contain toxic chemicals, and having [the] ones that don’t contain toxic chemicals being less affordable than others. And of course this is a very personal issue in which people should be able to choose how to best take care of their bodies, in a way that works for them.  We strongly believe that however they choose to do that, any products they use must be safe, accessible and affordable. I mean there’s so many issues involved but we’re really trying to raise [awareness surrounding] the issue of menstrual health and [its importance] and how there are tremendous inequities that come through in this arena. 

Interviewer: What are some steps that people who menstruate , or anyone in general who’s concerned, can take to push for the transition toward more sustainable menstruation outside of their own consumption practices? 

Alexandra Scranton: Yeah, it definitely goes beyond [consumption]. There’s certainly voting with your dollars in terms of products but we strongly encourage people to use their voices. Some of it is just having conversations within your personal sphere of influence, and talking about these issues more openly. It’s one of those funny things where a lot of people are like “I’m never going to talk about my period with anybody I don’t really know, or people I do know, or I won’t even talk about it with my doctor”, but once you sort of broach the subject it’s amazing how much people are willing to talk about it and everyone’s got stories and questions. Some of it is just having those conversations and making those conversations more comfortable. I was just at a conference, [and] I did a poster all about chemical testing in tampons and pads. The number of personal stories I got from random people walking by my poster, who were interested in the issue, [who feel as though] suddenly we can talk about this. So there’s certainly something that can be done on the individual level just making those conversations happen and more comfortable that will affect the whole issue. There [are] also opportunities that our organization creates to call companies and let them know that you care about the chemicals in their products, and let them know that you care about asking them to disclose the ingredients. Sometimes these ingredients are proprietary or they don’t tell you what you’re being exposed to. That makes a big difference, because companies [believe] nobody’s having problems with [their] products. [But] nobody’s talking about it; that’s why you’re not hearing from anybody, because nobody wants to talk about it. So getting people to call companies and tell them these issues are very important can make a real difference in getting companies to act, or act more strongly on the safety of their products. 

Interviewer: When you envision an ideal future where sustainable menstruation has been achieved, what would that entail? 

Alexandra Scranton: Part of it is [simply] that menstruation is fully accessible and not a weird thing. One of the analogies I make is [that] I would love the day when you can have a pad or tampon on your desk just like you have a box of tissues. You blow your nose and you’re dealing with absorbing bodily fluids that are kind of gross. Nobody’s ashamed of having a box of tissues on their desks, they’re found everywhere in public spaces too. It’s not something to be ashamed of. It should be no different when it comes to menstruation. So I’d love to see us get there. I think we’re a long way from there, from cultural acceptance. When we’re there we’ve made a lot of progress on a lot of issues. 

From a sustainability standpoint, there are so many things that need to be addressed in terms of the way we make these products, and what they’re made of. I think there’s really relatively little research and little innovation that has gone into how these products are made or what products are available. In the last five years there has been a tremendous amount of innovation relatively in terms of new products coming on the market, whether it’s period underwear or the new advances with menstrual cups, etc. But I think there’s more out there that we can do. Tampons have been around since the 20’s with relatively little innovation or creativity in terms of what they’re being made of. So I think there [are] some real advances that can be made that will really move things forward, [with] companies focusing not only on how these products perform, how thin they are, how comfortable they are, how much they absorb, and their functionality for what menstruators need, but making sure that they’re not having inadvertent health impacts and looking really carefully at what they’re being made of. 

It’s those two big lessons where we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve been around 25 years and people have been really interested in our issues. [They are] really careful about the cosmetics they buy and about organic food, and they’re really conscious consumers of the products they use.  And we started this campaign [Detox the Box] and they’re like ‘I’ve never thought about [the ingredients in period products]’. Never thought about what [they’re] putting inside [their] bodies, it’s a category where there’s just this blind spot. And then once it’s come to their attention they [want to] know more about this. But there is a lot of work to be done to give it the attention that it needs. 

Interviewer: Where can our readers go to find out more about your organization and your work?

Alexandra Scranton: We’ve got a great website, www.womensvoices.org and all of our information is there. If you look under the ‘Issues’ [tab] we’ve got period health and intimate care, and you can read about our ‘Detox the Box’ campaign, and our menstrual equity page. It’s all right there and constantly getting updated as new information becomes available. 
Interviewer: Thank you so much for your time.

Sharing is Caring: