New Delhi: Periods - The word is no longer taboo. Both women and men, in recent times, have spoken out about menstrual health and there has been quite a lot of awareness over it through films and other medium.
Unfortunately, there is not as much awareness about the 'long lasting', 'stain free', 'soft' sanitary pads which different multinationals promote and which are easily available in any chemist. Experts point to the harm that these plastic-based sanitary napkins have been causing -- both to the environment and health.
"Most of the sanitary napkins in India are just thrown in the garbage or flushed down the toilet. It is a havoc environmental challenge as these pads take around 500-800 years to biodegrade," Swati Singh Sambyal, Waste Management Manager of Centre for Environment Science, told IANS.
"And every used sanitary napkin carries two grams of non-biodegradable plastic. So the amount of non-biodegradable plastic accumulated every month is very high, a factor strong enough to raise concern over the crisis which environment is facing currently," Sambyal noted.
According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2015-16 report, around 48 percent rural women use sanitary napkin while in urban areas the percentage is around 77 percent.
Recent data provided by Menstrual Health Alliance India states that menstrual waste collected across the country, primarily consisting of sanitary napkins which is disposed of as routine waste along with other household garbage, is 45 percent.
According to the Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2,000 soiled napkins and blood-soaked cotton are disposed of after segregation into biodegradable and non-biodegradable components.
However, the Bio-Medical Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 1998, says that items contaminated with blood and body fluids, including cotton, dressings, soiled plaster casts, lines and bedding, are bio-medical waste and should be incinerated, autoclaved or microwaved to destroy pathogens.
"If the pads are burnt it can produce dioxine and phuron. Categorisation of sanitary pads has always been a major issue. The products used in making a pad make it under Solid Waste Management Rule but it has got blood in it," Sambyal said.
She further explained that the longer used pads are kept in the open and kept in contact with air, the more they are prone towards becoming pathogenic". "Stagnant natural blood accumulates a lot of bacteria like Escherichia coli, which rapidly multiplies at an exponential rate," she explained.
And not just on environment, but health experts also raised concern over the problems that can arise with the use of plastic based sanitary napkins.
"There are high chances of getting fungal infections due to collection of moisture. Plastic-based sanitary pads might also lead to pelvic infection which can cause allergies and irritation in the vaginal area," said Anuradha Kapur, Director and Head of Unit - Institute of Obs and Gynae, Max Smart Super Speciality Hospital, Saket."
"In extreme cases, it may also cause vaginitis or vulvitis (also known as vaginal or vulva inflammation) and in some cases, might lead to pelvic inflammatory disease," she added.
However, in recent times, there has been some awareness about the damage being done to environment and methods are being adopted to dispose of sanitary napkins through disposal machines.
"MNCs who are coming up with many types of pads should also collectively or individually take up some initiatives; they need to come up with collective centres or provide with proper disposal system," Sambyal said.
Recently, Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi also expressed her concern over improper disposal of sanitary napkins, saying that it can lead to serious consequences.
"They are often disposed of in ponds, rivers, which lead to blockage of drains. And if disposed of on the ground, it creates hygiene problems as it carries infection," Gandhi had said earlier.
She had also said that her ministry is in talks with Niti Aayog and other ministries for introducing a policy regarding setting up of sanitary napkin vending and disposal machines. As a measure to curb the damage being done to environment, the government on International Women's Day launched a biodegradable sanitary napkin called 'Suvidha' under the Pradhan Mantri Bharatiya Janaushadhi Pariyojana (PMBJP).
Launched by Union Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers Ananth Kumar, the sanitary napkins will be available for Rs 2.50 per pad at over 3,200 Janaushadhi Kendras across India by May 28, 2018, which is also the World Menstrual Hygiene Day.
Other biodegradable napkins are also available. Mostly produced by small-scale manufacturers or NGOs, these biodegradable ones are based on natural products like banana or jute fibre or even re-usable clothes.
Anshu Gupta's Not Just a Piece of Cloth (NJPC) was amongst the first to start off with the concept of clean cloth pad. Recently a few more have joined the league like Ahmedabad-based Saathi and Tamil Nadu-based EcoFemme.