The Korea Herald


Fears mount over 'toxic' sanitary pads

By Ock Hyun-ju

Published : Aug. 24, 2017 - 17:57

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Thousands of women plan to file a class action suit against a South Korean firm after civic groups found harmful chemicals in sanitary pads and a growing number of women reported health problems after using them.

As of Thursday afternoon, more than 15,000 expressed their intention to join the legal action, claiming that they have suffered negative effects, such as reduced menstrual bleeding, skin rashes and painful cramps after using Lilian brand pads produced by Klean Nara. A local law firm, which is currently recruiting plaintiffs, said the suit will be filed in coming days.

While the government’s inspection is underway, public distrust over the safety of sanitary pads, consumer product manufacturers and government regulations reached a tipping point.

“I started to use the Lilian pads in November last year and started to have horrible menstrual pain since four months ago. I just thought it was because of stress,” said Seo Ji-yeong, 24, told The Korea Herald. “After I switched to another type of pads, my pain went away. I thought the pads had been behind the problem.”

She believes that the problem is not confined to the Lilian pad.

“I cannot believe that the government had the Lilian pad pass its standards. I don’t think any brand is safe to use,” said Seo, who is one of the some  women seeking compensation from Klean Nara. 
Members of civic group Korean Women’s Environmental Network demand the government reinforce inspections on disposable sanitary pads after a Korean-made product was found to contain toxic chemicals, at a press conference in Seoul on Thursday. (Yonhap) Members of civic group Korean Women’s Environmental Network demand the government reinforce inspections on disposable sanitary pads after a Korean-made product was found to contain toxic chemicals, at a press conference in Seoul on Thursday. (Yonhap)

The Lilian brand targeted cost-conscious consumers in a country where pad prices are among the highest in the region. It frequently offered “buy one get one free” deals at convenience stores and drug stores such as Olive Young.

The sanitary pad market was worth about 297 billion won ($263 million) last year, according to the Drug Ministry. Klean Nara holds the third-biggest market share, with Yuhan-Kimberly placing first and LG Unicharm second.

A 31-year-old freelancer, who only gave her surname Choi, also experienced health problems.

“Since I began to use the Lilian pads early this year, my period has shortened from seven days to two days. At first, I never thought it could a problem stemming from sanitary pads,” Choi said.

“After I started to use organic cotton pads, the amount of menstrual blood increased,” she said. “I was just so furious at the unconscientious company as well as the government.”

A women’s health advocacy group, Korean Women’s Environmental Network, on Thursday released a survey on 3,009 women who said they had experienced abnormal symptoms after using the Lilian pads.

According to the survey, 65.6 percent of them said that their menstruation cycle changed. Nearly 86 percent said that the amount of menstrual blood diminished. Some 68 percent said that their menstrual pain worsened, while 55.8 percent said that their menstruation or vagina-related diseases got worse. 

However, the Lilian brand passed government regulations in the latest April-May inspection.

The firm initially refused to give refunds to consumers who purchased the Lilian pads, denying any links between health problems and use of its products. It said it had officially requested that the Korea Consumer Agency run a safety test on its products.

But it reversed its stance and issued an apology Wednesday amid growing public outcry. Anyone who purchased the product can get a refund with a receipt whether the product was opened or not, starting on Aug. 28, it said.

The country’s leading retailers -- E-mart, Homeplus and Lotte Mart -- as well as major convenience stores and drug stores pulled the Lilian sanitary products from their shelves as of Thursday.

Ko Kum-sook, an activist from the Korean Women’s Environmental Network, said that the government should first find out whether the health problems are directly related to the use of pads. 

“Also, there should be a nationwide inspection in all sanitary pads, but not by the current standards. Currently, all sanitary pads live up to the government’s standards, but there are still women suffering from side effects,” she said.

The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety currently checks nine types of chemicals, such as formaldehyde and fluorescent brightening agents, to check the safety of sanitary pads. But the chemicals at the center of the controversy, volatile organic compounds, are not tested for. VOCs are not regulated in other countries either.

Activists demand the government tighten its regulations by testing more types of chemicals potentially harmful to human health on sanitary pads before they are approved for sale. They also want the chemicals used in sanitary pads to be disclosed from now on.

The ministry carried out on-site inspection on five sanitary pad makers Thursday including the controversial Klean Nara. But whether there are harmful levels of VOCs in the sanitary pads will not be confirmed because they are not included in the inspection.

It is separately conducting a study on what impact VOCs have on human health.

“We will bring forward the date of completion of the study as much as possible to relieve public concerns as it is an urgent issue,” an official from the ministry said. “If VOCs are found to be harmful to human health, we will take necessary measures.

Women’s health advocacy groups have long raised concerns about the safety of sanitary pads, demanding thorough research into the safety of tampons, pads and other feminine hygiene products.

In March, the Korean Women’s Environmental Network released a result of a safety test on 10 disposable sanitary pads and panty liners sold by foreign and local firms here.

The study, conducted by professor Kim Man-goo of Kangwon National University, showed that all the sanitary pads contained more than 200 types of VOC, including cancer-causing benzene. VOCs, which are released from products at ordinary room temperature, include a variety of chemicals which may have short and long-term adverse health effects.

Among the pads sold here, Lilian sanitary pads and panty liners were revealed to contain the highest concentration of VOCs.

But the safety of sanitary pads was brought into the spotlight only recently after women began to share online complaints that their menstrual cycles were interrupted when they were using the product.

Some are now turning to menstrual cups, which will be approved for sale here from September, and reusable cotton sanitary pads, instead of the possibly chemical-ridden disposable pads. But such options are still new to many Korean women.

“Organic cotton pads are too expensive and menstrual cups are difficult to carry around,” Seo said. “I don’t know what to use.”

According to a survey by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety released in May, some 81 percent of women use sanitary pads, and only 11 percent use tampons. Most of them, or 36.4 percent of them, considered convenience the most important factor.

By Ock Hyun-ju (