Podcast Diaries: The Period Podcast S01E08

Why we love this episode:

In this episode of The Period Podcast, Dr Clancy speaks to Dr. Felisa Reynolds about periods in the workplace. Here at BeYou HQ its obviously not like a ‘normal’ workplace but we all resonated with it, and we’re sure you will too! By the way, if you’ve been following this series of podcasts with us then make sure you go and check out the ones we missed in between! They are just as good as the ones we cover here!

Anyway, from access to sanitary products in the workplace (and the associated health concerns) to the NGOs helping it become a reality around the world, this episode covers it all. You’re guaranteed to learn SO MUCH about periods and period blood than you ever thought possible, so hit play, or go and listen to it on your favourite podcast app. You won’t regret it! As always, we’ve transcribed it for you if you’re one of those people who likes to read and listen, or just prefers reading!

Listen & Learn:


So you could have people literally throwing waste across stalls by accident.

This is PERIOD podcast, episode eight. I'm Kate Clancy, a professor who researches periods, how they affect our life, and how our life affects them. This week was a real treat for me. I got to interview two dear friends and colleagues about our greatest pet peeve working in our building, menstrual waste disposal.

There is no faculty lounge in my department, nor is there a faculty club at this university. So it can be difficult to have chance run ins with colleagues. The one exception is the first floor women's bathroom. It's the most accessible women's bathroom for my department, and the only one in the entire first floor of the building. So it's one of the few places I run into female identified colleagues. I'm sorry to say that we have no gender neutral bathrooms in my building. So this bathroom, probably the heaviest used by faculty and very frequently used by students, since it's along the hallway that is near several laboratories, faculty offices and classrooms, doesn't have an obvious place to dispose of pads and tampons.

There's one large open trashcan in the main part of the bathroom, but nothing in the three stalls. What's more, you rarely have much privacy in this bathroom because a great number of students and service workers use the couch, a horrible pale pink leather affair to talk on their cell phones, surf the internet on break, even conduct Skype meetings. In eight years I've seen it all and I have wished to see none of it. What does this have to do with periods, everything.

If you need to swap out your pad or tampon, you may have to parade the said used product in front of your student, your professor, your colleague, or a random stranger who thinks it's okay to use their webcam while sitting on that couch over to the trashcan. If it's a heavy flow day and a rather messy affair, too bad for you. One of my friends and colleagues is assistant professor of French and Italian. Dr Felisa Reynolds. Dr Reynolds works on French literature in the former colonies, the French Caribbean, West Africa and North Africa with a focus on women writers in post-colonial times.

Well, do periods come up it all in your research? Does anyone ever talk about menstruation?

It's interesting. There is a very little talk of menstruation. There's women giving birth and there's women as sexual objects. I think that one thing that I am privileged to see, since I deal with newer literature in the sense that, things from the 2000s and beyond, is women trying to reclaim their bodies and their own sexuality. So there is some talk of that, but the menstrual cycle itself is glaringly absent from my, I dare say most literature, it's just not there. Somehow women have children. Somehow at some point women stopped being able to have children, in literature there is reference to that, but I would say little to no reference ever to periods.

Interesting. Okay, yeah. So then that's a whole other thing we could cover.

Yeah. And I didn't think about it until you asked that question, that no, you never see it, does not exist.

Dr. Reynolds, often teachers in my building, though her office is one building over. We've encountered each other in that bathroom and expressed our disgust at it far too many times. I decided to interview Dr. Reynolds to understand her experience as a menstruating woman in this workplace.

And I think we've had a similar experience with regards to signs we see in the bathrooms here in our buildings, and those are signs that tell us not to flush any feminine products which we can go on and on about what exactly a feminine product would be, but we presume they mean tampons and pads. And to not flush them in the toilets for concerns about the plumbing, I presume. So our problem is that none of our bathroom stalls appear to have trash cans. So then the question becomes, what am I supposed to do with my pad or tampon if there is no trashcan? So that is something that I think we've both encountered.

Yeah. So what have, if you don't mind saying, what have been your various strategies for dealing with that moment when you have to change things out, and there's literally nothing in the stall for you to dump it into?

Oh, well one of my least favourite strategies is when I've noticed that the trashcan is going to be entirely too far, is to put a wrapper or something in my purse, which is gross. But for convenience sake, especially if I'm in a hurry, or there's, God forbid, one of your students is near the sink, you maybe don't necessarily want to walk out with a tampon wrapper or the plastic applicator or a pad if you're having one of those days and so it's easier to just shove it in your purse or your bag and say you'll deal with it later because you're running off to a class or a meeting, which is frankly disgusting. But that's one thing we've had to do or sometimes you just brave it and walk out to the trash, probably holding your tampon trash and say," Because no, today I'm not putting this in my purse."

Yeah. So it's important for us to identify with pads and tampons, right? There's a couple of different pieces. And this may be for the men that are listening or people who haven't had a period yet who are listening. If you have a pad, there's the outer wrapper, there's the inner piece that saves the adhesive.

Correct. And then for a tampon, there's often an applicator and an outer wrapper.

And then of course, if you're switching things out, rather than just putting something in for the first time, you've got the used component.

Correct. Which presumably they don't want us to flush, either.

So where exactly am I supposed to put it is the question. And I believe in one frustrated moment, and this is something that you've experienced in your building as well, I think on one sign, I must have been having a particularly bad day, that told me not to flush anything, and then I wrote on there, "Well then give me a trash can." If you don't want me to flush anything down the toilet then put trash cans in the stalls, which there appear to be none of in many, many bathrooms on campus.

Right, and that's the thing that always perplexes me, I don't see why it would be so hard to actually put to just put a tiny little trash can in there. Now the thing I'm pulling up is, I took a picture earlier today.

We have probably all seen signs in workplaces, schools, restaurants and other places with signs like what I read to Dr. Reynolds next. The sign read, please do not flush tampons, they clog the toilet. Thank you. And we are all of course also familiar with bathroom wall graffiti. In the bathroom we're speaking of however, women have responded with their pens not to write poetry or shame other women by speaking ill of them, but they've responded to the sign. Our guest shares the graffiti.

So somebody in a similar moment of frustration, wrote, please provide a trash bin so that I don't have to carry a tampon out of the stall. To which somebody replied above, "Amen, sister." Which Yes, amen. But then somebody else wrote-

Let's see if I can read it again. "It's to small," and that's T-O small, "Don't be lazy."

Yes. So somebody thinks that we're lazy for wanting adequate receptacles to throw away trash that we have to deal with on a monthly basis for a good what 20, 30 years of our lives, I don't think is an unreasonable request.

Right. It's like saying, how dare you want a toilet? You wish to actually pee or put your toilet paper into any other bodily functions.

Or the toilet paper would be somehow something that you would shockingly need in a restroom.

Have you ever bought any of those, the 25 cent crummy pads or tampons?

Oh, certainly, I've been caught running out of tampons and you're stuck in work and you're frantic for a bathroom or a place that might have them and then you pay 25 cents for a pad that was last updated I think in 1964. As if they haven't quite figured out what to do with pads. Or if you're lucky finding one of those tampon dispensers, but they're few and far between. So a lot of times you just have to improvise with toilet paper and hope for the best because you're at work.


And it's almost like the workplace hasn't caught up to the fact that, "Women work here," and we have a full day of working that we need to do and sometimes yes, we're on our periods and we need things that we need during our periods like pads and tampons and Advil dispensers would be nice too. But that's almost asking for too much.

Exactly. And I've actually been caught without the quarter two.


So the makeshift, needing the toilet paper thing is something I've had to do more than once because I just somehow couldn't find a quarter, or the dispenser's broken.


Or it doesn't have anything in it when you put the quarter in it. So it's, yeah, it's like if the whole place were out of toilet paper or something.

Right. No, I'm sure we're not the first women to have had to improvise with toilet paper or Kleenex or anything of the like, because that's just what life is. But shockingly, we're still able to do our jobs, in spite being on our periods and sometimes not having the right equipment with us. We're still able to teach our classes, meet with our students, go about our daily lives.

Do the women in my workplace get along without trash cans in our bathroom stalls? Yes, we do go about our lives, do our work, our students surely carry on as well. The question is not, can we handle this? The question is whether we should? Is it a welcoming workplace or learning environment if the bathroom isn't outfitted appropriately to accommodate menstrual periods? And are their health consequences to these unsanitary conditions?

Before I turn to my next guest, I want to read for you one other bathroom note from a different style in this bathroom. Another woman requests a trash can be put in the stall. And again, in the same handwriting I've come to know so well throughout this building, the response reads, "It's seven steps. Don't be lazy." Lazy is not how I described the women who learn and work here. I've taken pictures of these signs, and you can see them in my show notes at kateclancy.com/period8.

So now let's talk to Dr. Jessica Brinkworth, an assistant professor who also works in this building. I start by asking her about her experiences with her bathroom in the bathroom closest to her lab.

Yeah. So my experience with that bathroom has been that I have my period and no place to dispose of napkins or tampons or anything else. It's been a pretty miserable experience. So there's a set of bags that are sitting, I don't know, depending on which stall you're in, they could be 12, 15 feet away. That we're expected to walk out of the stall with whatever the napkin or tampon with it wrapped up in whatever and then go get the bag, put it in the bag, close the bag and then walk another so many feet to the garbage can.

So this makes it a very public experience. You cannot have your period and have any degree of privacy. You certainly could not have a messy period and have any safe breathing and clean way to dispose of your refuse.

Mm-hmm (affirmative). And in fact, the problem with this bathroom is not just this bathroom, you said across the street where your lab is there's also a women's bathroom.

Oh, yes. I feel technically even worse. So there's one women's, the women's bathrooms are separated also by floors, so I think there's one two floors below me as well. And so for all intents and purposes, for any given one and a half floors, this is the bathroom for women. And it has two stalls, and a sanitary napkin disposal container. Well, it has a door. It has one of these containers that's supposed to be flush with the stall wall,

It's between the two stalls?

And it's between the two stalls. So the idea is that you have a door on one side and a door on the other side and everybody's throwing it into the same bag, except that on one side, there's no back to this unit, so that if you were sitting in the stall with no back and somebody were to throw enthusiastically there tampon into the container, it would just land at your feet. So you could have people literally throwing waste across stalls by accident.

Dr. Brinkworth also happens to be a biologist.

Yeah. So I study evolutionary immunology and infectious disease. Not so much say infectious disease epidemiology or transmission, but the effects of infectious disease on human and animal evolution primarily. So I spend a lot of time torturing cells in petri dishes with pathogens.

And what Dr. Brinkworth has to say is not good. And her words suggest that those who would tell us our desire to be sanitary as lazy, may be in the wrong.

Yeah. So we're talking about menstrual blood. In this context, I'm talking about surface transmission, right? So what happens if you have either visible or non visible blood that's on a surface and can you pick something up from that? So that's very different, say from like sexual transmission. And then it turns out that there's a nice chunk of information out there about what you can get sexually transmitted from somebody while someone else is menstruating.

The big meanies can be transmitted by surface contact with menstrual blood would be Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C. So those are very likely the two most dangerous as well, because Hep C certainly is not, there's no vaccine and it's difficult to treat. And it certainly progresses to a fatal disease over 10 or 12 years. I'm happy there is a vaccine for and there's been one since 1982. The issue for whatever reasons that it's penetrance in the population, that changes over time, but there's still 1.2 million people in the US who carry Hep B and most of them don't know. There's About 350 million people worldwide.

So there's a lot of people who have hepatitis B that can pass it to somebody else. And again, this can lead to a chronic infection. Some people get rid of it very quickly, but there are a number of people who don't, and so in chronic infection and this leads to considerable liver damage. So it is highly, highly infectious. It can live on surfaces for weeks, such that there are standards that have been described for what's acceptable for receptacle cleanliness.

And so for example, the ideal scenario for these two organisms would be that your sanitary napkin disposal would be A, available, B, lined with a plastic or wax paper bag that fits. And that's another thing often when I think every woman has experience with the bags that don't fit or bags that are just simply not present. With the receptacles there, but there's no bag.

The people who are clearing them out should have gloves on to protect themselves. So nitrile gloves and then the surfaces need to be decontaminated every day and the handles on the way out of the stall need to be decontaminated every day. I'm not sure I've ever, except in a hospital ever been, or maybe in elementary school, I've ever been in a location that's been cared for like that. I've certainly not experienced that in the last two universities I've worked in.

And so there's a few other things that can be passed that are, little less is known about them but. So menstrual blood can carry salmonella, it can carry pathogenic e coli. It can carry Staphylococcus aureus, and therefore it can carry methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus which is a much more serious bug.

Which is MRSA, right?

MRSA, yeah. And it's more serious for a variety of reasons, in part because it can lice its own, like it can create wounds on its own. In some cases, some of the strains can. And also it's resistant to a major family of antibiotics. And then streptococcus as well is something else that could be passed. So there's a variety of other things that can happen that you can pick up. So it's important to keep the area clean.

So then that means that there are, when places with bathrooms for their employees or for the public do not actually take care of these spaces appropriately, they are creating increased opportunities for transmission of these diseases?

Yeah, absolutely. And if we were working in a lab, we would be working with this kind of material very differently, right? The interesting thing about this is that OSHA doesn't consider sanitary napkins a regulated product. They don't think that it's a regulated waste. And the reason for this is that, in their view, blood typically doesn't rest on the top of the pads. It's being in with the new maxi pads in any case, with the new innovations in maxi pads in the last 30 years and there's been a lot, right?

So most maxi pads have, what do you call it, an absorber that's made out of sodium polyacrylate, right? So that sucks up stuff up really, really quickly. So that you could run water on a maxi pad and then put a piece of paper on it just like in the commercials and nothing's going to come out. But this is just in denial of how blood actually lands on maxi pads, and certainly how tampons work.

Of course there's tissue.

There's tissue, yeah.

Blood is not just the thing that goes through these absorbing-

Not exactly.

There are chunks, sometimes that you are dealing with that are right on top of the pad.

The standard for that technically covers this for OSHA is standard 1910, 1030. And the FAQ for that standard states that they don't think it's a risk because blood's unlikely to even dry to flake off. So they don't consider it a regulated waste, which I mean, practically speaking, it would be difficult for OSHA, or at least OSHA people in particular states, particularly this state, which has its own OSHA, to come in and regulate sanitary napkin disposal potentially.

But what really stunned me about the way they describe this was just a complete and utter lack of understanding of how pads actually function and work. Right? So it made me think that maybe the person who wrote it had never seen a tampon. The one big group that could potentially regulate this doesn't think that it's necessarily an issue. And to a certain extent, we're dealing with some unknowns because there really hasn't been a lot of information. Nobody's, or at least published on in peer reviewed materials anyway, on surface transmission from menstrual blood. So that's empty.

So, this is a problem. A fundamental misunderstanding of the texture of periods and the way sanitary products work have created a loophole where this effluent, which can carry disease, is not regulated by OSHA. For those of you who may not know this acronym, OSHA is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an agency of the United States Department of Labor. That means that service workers cleaning bathrooms, as well as users themselves may not be adequately protected from blood borne pathogens transmissible through menstrual blood. Dr Brinkworth offers some thoughts about best practices, about disposing of used menstrual products here and abroad.

I guess the very first thing, since we're talking about infectious disease, it's just the means of getting it in and out of a stall, for example, is difficult. If you're a woman, and you have to remove a tampon or take a pad off, and typically, I think most women do this. They either wrap it up in the wrapper from the next pad or they wrapped it up in some toilet paper to keep it all contained, your hands would be coming contaminated, right? And then you have to touch the door to get out of the stall. And so that's potentially a risk for surface transmission.

So a means by which you could just say open and throw an unwrapped pad or anything else into a contained plastic bag or something like that into a container would be fantastic. But there are issues worldwide with menstrual health and menstrual pad disposal. So in a lot of nations where women are well down on the food chain for respect, say or I guess, another term I guess we can is, full on second class citizens. There's a great deal of stigma surrounding menstruation to begin with, and so for those women to dispose of pads becomes an entirely different measure, especially in places where they may not have privacy.

And so in those places, we see a drop in the number of women that are willing to even acquire pads from the outside or who might even engage in like cleaning rags and stuff like that. Because there's such a huge stigma about it. One of the things that's been proposed, so this is an issue in rural India, in particular, where in some regions, there's quite a bit of stigma around menstruation. And so there's a couple of companies SWACH, that's S-W-A-C-H and EcoFemme. So these are NGOs that are working in this area, and they're trying to make menstrual hygiene waste practices in rural India safer.

So one of the things that they've proposed is the biodegradable newspaper envelopes with a string on them. So they're very small and discrete, you can keep them on you. And when you go to some other location you can simply take any pad or rag that you have and put them inside. And you might even have the option to carry them out with you or you can throw them into your local disposal septic pit without them necessarily being detected. So that's one thing.

The other issue broadly, I guess, with disposal of menstrual waste is just the environmental impact that it can have, right? Because most of the commercial products, they're plastic. And in scenarios where throwing them out... So one of the reasons why we like the plastic pad, right? Is that it is disposable. It's not even just an issue of convenience. It's that they're reasonably sterile, so you have less of a risk for all kinds of other conditions, in the case of tampons, less of a risk for toxic shock syndrome than you would if you had to reuse something over and over again.

So one of the issues, that's one of the reasons why we like the disposable pads, bad environmental impact but good for cleanliness, especially in emergency situations. But getting rid of them is difficult. And so some of the practices that people have to do worldwide includes things like burying them, right? But if that's not an option, if the public display of burying your menstrual waste is not an option for you, then the other options are basically to throw it out discreetly into public places or into public access pits, in which case it can be carried off by other animals and therefore cause waste in a much larger region.

So women don't feel they have an option for disposal. What are the things they end up doing instead to deal with their mensies?

So, from what we know, based on information that's come out of NGOs in disaster situations is that women will have a tendency to wear rags for a much, much longer period of time than they should. So ideally, you're changing maxi pads and tampons out. I think tampons is six to eight hours, but ideally less, and maxi pads just because of how much, because they can I guess technically absorb a great deal less, people end up changing them out every four hours or so. Right? So there's really legitimate reasons for doing this. It puts you at risk for surface infections or also internal infections like bacterial vaginosis, but it really in the case of tampons, puts women at risk for toxic shock syndrome. Which once it starts it's very, very difficult to control and has a high mortality rate.

Can you explain, because I feel like a lot of women know that toxic shock syndrome is something they should be afraid of. And they've probably all been taught that it's from wearing a tampon too long, but I don't know that many people know what it is.

So you are filled with all kinds of wonderful and bad bacteria, right? And in the case of toxic shock syndrome, what happens is that a substrate that is taking up, so your endomysium is not, its shedding but it's not going anywhere, right? It's sitting on this new substrate that's absorbing it, which creates a fantastic surface area for bacteria to grow and basically an overgrowth of bacteria that can trigger a septic reaction. So an overt inflammatory response grows to such a number that it's detected. And then that triggers this overt immune response, which then leads to effectively a type of sepsis.

So it's very, very dangerous. And that kind of condition doesn't take long to kill somebody. So for all the myths that you hear about women showing up in the ER with a tampon that's been in there for two weeks, I'm not sure how many of those things are true. In my understanding of toxic shock syndrome is that it goes down in about three to five days, which would be very typical of how sepsis operates as well.

Is there anything more you want to say around the Human Rights stuff? I feel like you would look up a bunch.

Oh, yeah. So I fell down an internet hole a couple of days ago when I was just double checking some stuff on infectious disease. Yeah. So this is a really big issue, and when people make their own donations to disaster relief funds, when they make donations of actual items, people think water, clothes, sometimes laundry detergent gets thrown into the mix, but menstrual health items don't typically get, people just simply don't think about it. And so that's certainly something that would be very useful to supply to any group in need here, or food kitchens for that matter. Like anybody who's stocking for someone who's underprivileged.

We have this issue here with homeless people as well, those women need to menstruate as well. Well, they do menstruate as well. And they need to have access to clean items that are disposable because their access to areas where they can, say, wash rags or something like that is very limited. And so that's certainly something to think about.

So I have one other big question for you then. What do you feel like are the changes that... One of the things that... With Emily Martin and a number of other cultural anthropologists over the years have pointed out are the ways in which many cultures, ours in particular, I would certainly say is designed with men in mind, and certainly the workplace is designed with men's lives in mind, even today, even when women actually occupy about half the jobs in our country. We still live in this world that is very male dominant in terms of the way that the workplace looks and works. What are some ways in which the work, you might imagine a workplace that looks different and that actually accommodates women who menstruate?

Oh, well, sanitary disposal. There're sanitary disposal boxes that are plastic lined, right? Stainless steel boxes, plastic lined, hands free systems, where you don't have to touch, things like that. That would, in every stall, not outside 15 feet away where you then have to touch a bunch of other things. Because the issue from my standpoint isn't just, okay, so in an ideal world, this wouldn't be stigmatized at all. It's something that I don't personally like to have to advertise, especially now that I'm 40.

So my periods don't just... This is personal to say out loud, but my periods don't act the way that they do 10 years ago, right? They show up sometimes 40, 45 days late, they show up unbelievably heavy by surprise or they show up very late. It's very, very unpredictable. And so the idea that I might have to come out with just a very messy mass of things, and walk 15 feet over to a bag to put them in, why should I personally be subjected to advertising to everyone that I'm having a period? That's my uterus. Yeah, it's my uterus, it's my business.

But on the other hand, anybody who's going to be in there cleaning that bathroom should be very, very concerned that I have this massive bloody things, and I have now touched all the surfaces between here and where the bags are located 15 feet away, and to not be concerned about that is very myopic. So yeah, so I would say from an employer's standpoint, it would be beneficial to ensure that no one else has the possibility of picking up hepatitis, for example.

But because they're in the business of cleaning, or that no one else should have to be exposed to the other, the women are going to come in and use that bathroom. So that should be a concern. But here's the thing, I've been working over in that building now for over a year. I have never once lodged a complaint with anybody about the fact, it never even occurred to me to do so. And it's certainly not the first bathroom I've worked in that's been like this.


Because, I don't know why it didn't occur to me. I've been trying to think about that the last couple of weeks. Why have I not complained about this directly? And the sad thing is, my expectation is that it simply won't be changed, so.

Yeah. And the other thing honestly is, I can imagine going to our business office who happen to all be women, and complaining to them about it. But the idea of talking to them about it in a way that is pushing for change requires us then going to building service workers, all of whom are men and telling them, "Hey, we are menstruating, we'd really like better conditions in those bathrooms." So it means talking to men about our periods, which there are pretty strong cultural taboos around. So that even those of us who talk about human biology and physiology all the time and don't shy away from it might not be thrilled with the idea of talking to a man about it, who is going to be deeply uncomfortable when we bring it up with him.


So even if we are comfortable, we know we're encountering people who aren't comfortable.

Well, yeah, there's that. I think the thing for me also is just the... It's the dismissal. It's like trying to talk to somebody about what it's like to have allergies who doesn't have allergies, right? That it can be like that experience, where you're sitting here saying, "My hay fever feels like this?" Well, for someone that has never had hay fever, they might be empathetic, it's really difficult for them to understand how difficult that experience can be.

Or another thing that might be more relatable because it's possible that all the people that are listening to this right now have never hay fever. But when you try to describe to someone the feeling of snorting water up your nose, that's a very unique feeling, right? It doesn't feel like anything else. And if you're having that conversation with somebody who's never done it, how could they possibly understand just how painful that experience, and difficult and uncomfortable that experiences is?


So having that conversation with somebody who's never, for example, stood up and suddenly realized that they're menstruating or hasn't gone through the 21 to 28 day experience most women do. It can be difficult, you have to hope that the person who's in charge, that you finally get to is sympathetic. But I'm not the only woman using these washrooms, there's a whole bunch of us in every workplace. I've been to where this has been inadequate, and I would say just about every workplace I've worked in has had some aspect of menstrual hygiene practices that are askew in some way. From the very basic model they laid at the beginning of like a half a bag that's safe in there, that fits the canister have a canister, stuff like that.

And so there's a whole community of women that either are complaining they're not being heard, and lodging complaints with the right people or simply not talking at all. It's not that hard to put these things in position. In some places, and it's not ideal, they just have all those tiny little desk garbage cans and you can just throw stuff in there. It's really not difficult for someone else to come in and, for an administration to step in and say, "You know what, this stall or this bathroom with three stalls, it's worth the $15 to put in the little tiny plastic desk disposable cans.

But if they want to be up to easy to sanitize code, as far as I can tell, there's no code. So Bobrick is like the major producer of these things, which I don't know why I know that but I know that Bobrick is the major producer of these things. And the units cost depending, run 100 to $200, which is to be honest, not that expensive when we're talking about an institution that's worth, is a multimillion dollar, billion dollar institution.


So yes, as far as I'm concerned, there's no excuse for any location I've ever been in that hasn't retrofitted a bathroom to accommodate a phenomenon that's been going on for millions of years, right? It's not like this is a new thing.

If ever you have wondered how culture can affect science, here is a great example. The menstrual taboo that keeps us from talking about periods is probably led to menstrual blood not being worthy of consideration by OSHA. It is understudied when it comes to understanding surface transmission of pathogens. And many women, even in relatively well-off schools and workplaces, endure substandard menstrual sanitation practices, without any idea they might have the right to ask for better. I'm glad president Obama is mandating baby changing tables in all women's and men's bathrooms in federal buildings. #ThanksObama.

But we also lack basic mandates for menstrual hygiene practices. Though if you're wondering, no, the women's bathroom that is a subject of this episode does not have a changing table either. When my daughter was still in diapers, I changed her on the floor of my office. Let's get the last word from Dr Brinkworth on the topic of menstrual products that are sanitary, but either reusable or biodegradable, and therefore better for our planet.

I talked about this with disposable sanitary napkins versus rags. There are lots of rag options out there where you can, using super absorbent materials, that can be washed and cared for provided that you have certain little envelopes that you can put them into. You can have your period, not destroy the planet. There's also a biodegradable pad options that have been pushed forward by the same two companies I was talking about before. They're using really, really interesting materials. So that's SWACH and EcoFemme.

They use some interesting materials such as water lily leaves. And I don't know if you remember this, but in the early 90s Stayfree went through a little period of putting effectively, peat moss into their pads too. Which I'm not sure how that works. So there's options for making this less environmentally, I guess impactful. I don't like that word but, to lessen the environmental impact of simply having your period and that includes also those little diva cups.

I think they're great. And they've been on the market for a really long time. And I remember various women's organizations coming to my undergraduate campus and selling them, and you could buy them for 20 bucks. I think they're fantastic. And basically you have them, you take them out in a timely fashion just to be clear, so that you don't face the same issues that you might with a tampon. And provided you figure out how they fit well in you, they should work fine.

If you're nervous about it and you're still very environmentally dedicated, there are, and I've seen these in mainly cloth diaper stores. So there's an overlap in the producers who make these things. But in a store in Canada specifically called Bummis, if you walk into any one of those stores they usually have also, what are the little ones called? Panty liners.

Yeah, I have some.

Yeah, made out of an absorbent fleece which are really fantastic.

Those are good for light days, I found.


The reusable ones are not heavy enough for me for heavy days, but really light days I can use them.

And I wish I had thought of this earlier. But if you're really gung ho and you can't find these items yourself, you can actually buy the fleece for these stuff. The major producer of diaper fleece, which is effectively the same fleece that's used for these, which is very different by the way from thermo fleece as for anybody who's thinking about this. Thermo fleece is very water repellent. You certainly don't want to make a maxi pad out of these stuff that you might wear outside.

I discovered this when I bought a whole bunch and tried to make cloth diapers out of them. Yeah, it doesn't absorb anything. But diaper fleece does. And it's typically made out of a combination of hemp and super absorbent cotton and there's a few other things that get mixed into the mix as well. The company that makes this stuff is in New Jersey and I have literally just forgotten the name. Wazoodle.

Say it again.

The company's name is Wazoodle.com. So, W-A zoodle.

Okay. Cool.

Yeah, based in New Jersey, and they have a really wide variety of fabrics and they have little templates. And so if you want to make your own they're ready to go.

There you have it, DIY menstrual pads, and another shout out to menstrual cups.


Excerpt: Kate interviews Dr. Felisa Reynolds about their shared experience of a workplace bathroom, and Dr. Jessica Brinkworth about the health consequences of inaccessible menstrual hygiene.

Summary: I love my job, I really do. I don’t love the bathroom by my office. It is a pastel pink dump with a couch and nowhere to put my bloody pads. The women of my department find ourselves convening in the bathroom quite often, which means the lack of menstrual hygiene is a not infrequent topic of conversation.

period cramps at work

The weird couch in our bathroom. Good for putting my bag down, but not great for changing babies or hygienically disposing of menstrual waste. Also note the “sanitary bags” on the windowsill, rather than in the stalls.

One day, after one too many conversations about that bathroom, I decided I needed to make an episode about it. I decided to interview two people: Dr. Felisa Reynolds, who is a neighbour and friend and has had to teach in my building and thus endure our bathroom; and Dr. Jessica Brinkworth, an evolutionary immunologist who knows a thing or two about the nasties you can get if menstrual blood gets left around.

We talked not only about our building’s unwillingness to put some form of menstrual waste disposal in the stalls, but the difficulty we have in having this conversation other than scrawled on our bathroom’s walls.

period cramps menstrual cups in public or at work

The signs in our bathroom stalls. The text from our building service workers reads “Please do not flush tampons they clog the toilet thank you!!!” The left sign has 2 comments: 1) Please provide a trash bin, 2) Walk to trash can – 7 steps. And the sign on the right has 3 comments: 1) Please provide a trash bin so that I don’t have to carry a used tampon out of this stall, 2) Amen sister!, and 3) It’s to [sic] small, don’t be lazy.

Dr. Brinkworth also taught me about the kinds of diseases that can be contracted from inappropriately disposed menstrual blood, and why OSHA doesn’t seem to regulate menstrual blood waste like it does regular blood waste. Which is worrisome since both are, you know, blood. So this episode is a return to period science. I think you’ll really enjoy it!

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