Toxic Shock Syndrome, Tampon Absorbency, and Feminist Science

Sharra Vostral


Tampon-associated toxic shock syndrome (TSS) has disproportionately affected women, and specifically, menstruators.  By 1980, the Centers for Disease Control recommended that women limit their use of superabsorbent tampons since the risk for TSS increased with greater levels of absorption.  However, women had no way of following this advice since products did not have consistent absorbency labels.  A standard to set absorptive capacity as well as nomenclature was required, and the consensus process to do so was governed by ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials).  Esther Rome from the Boston Women's Health Book Collective participated as a consumer representative, and solicited feminist scientist Nancy Reame to help generate data on their behalf.  Importantly, they rejected the use of blue saline and "blue goo" as a menstrual fluid in the syngyna—the synthetic vagina simulacrum lab instrument—to test tampon absorbency, and insisted upon heparinized blood instead.  They challenged the process by which a standard is established, the method by which variables are controlled, and the erasure of menstrual fluid from tests about tampon absorbency. The feminist science yielded both usable and valid outcomes, with results that challenged the design of the experiment upon which standards were to be based.



Toxic Shock Syndrome, Menstruation, Syngyna, Tampon, Women's Health Movement, Esther Rome, Boston Women's Health Book Collective

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