At the end of August, the side effect cases of “Lilian,” a sanitary pad produced by Klean Nara, started to be revealed. At the same time, an experiment conducted by Kang Man-goo, a professor of Kangwon National University and “Ecofem,” a female environmentalist’s association, became controversial since the result showed that most of sanitary pads contain chemical substances which had doubts on toxicity. Although the sanitary pads should be safe in any case, women are searching for “Safe” sanitary pads on the Internet. It shows that fear around purchasing sanitary pads has grown and their right to be safe has been violated. Therefore, steps have been taken by various organizations including the government and women’s organizations to tackle the growing controversy.
How the controversy on sanitary pads progressed
On March 21st, professor Kang Man-goo and “Ecofem” reported the result of the experiment of sanitary pads. They reported that Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) which are carcinogenic chemical substances were found in ten kinds of sanitary pads sold on the market. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS) ignored the report and only when the controversy arose, they announced that the quality test would be done. Furthermore, at first, the “Lilian” was the only brand whose side effects were revealed to the public. Due to complaints from some consumers, all of the product names were revealed including Yuhan Kimberly’s “Joeun Neukkim,” and “White,” LG Unicharm’s “Body Fit” and P&G’s “Whisper.” Since these products were generally used by the public, consumers were shocked by the unexpected revelations.
However, the MFDS denied the result of the experiment, saying it is not scientifically trustworthy. Thus, they announced they would firstly conduct a quality test of all products on sale for ten kinds of VOCs. On September 28th, they announced that according to the quality test, these ten VOCs are not harmful to human. Nevertheless, consumers went through inconvenience of not having any solution to substitute sanitary pads, which are a daily necessity, and anxiety that they could have used toxic sanitary pads. Also, even the result has been shown, they fell in a big confusion since they still do not know what caused the side effects. As a lot of consumers do not trust the result and are still anxious about it, the government said they will perform epidemiologic survey to find out the connection between the side effects and the components. Plus, the Korea Institute of Drug Safety & Risk Management is now collecting side effect cases to construct a database.
Women’s right to pursue happiness is infringed
Under Article 10 and 34 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea, every citizen has a right to seek happiness and the nation has a duty to ensure basic rights such as health and security. However, regarding this controversy, the fact that no certain standard existed in worldwide has been revealed and our government is taking the first step. That is, it is clear that women’s rights of health and safety have not been guaranteed. In Korea, three main reasons over sanitary pads were revealed why women had problems with pursuing their rights.
Firstly, the safety standard of sanitary pads presented by the MFDS is insufficient. This standard has not been changed in the past 20 years and allows inspection of only nine parts excluding the VOCs. That is, the sanitary pads on sale passed the standard legally so there is no reason to restrict them even if the chemical substance is detected. In addition, the MFDS manages products which contact with the body since they are considered to be in requirement of strict regulation. However, as the regulation of sanitary pads which checks only five toxic substances is much looser than that of pesticides or detergents which checks 30 substances managed by the Ministry of Environment, the MFDS is being criticized by the public.
A lack of alternative products is another aspect of the infringement of right. After the sanitary pad experiment became an issue, consumers found several alternative goods such as menstrual cups, cotton pads, and organic sanitary pads. Though, these goods have some drawbacks. Menstrual cups have low accessibility so they cannot be bought easily since it was introduced in Korea just a few months ago. In the case of cotton pads, the inconvenience of washing every time is a big problem. Lastly, organic sanitary pads are similar with disposable sanitary pads used before. Though, they cost about three times more than normal ones and can cause a financial burden to consumers. In this regard, Won Seo-young (Freshman, Division of English Language and Literature) said, “I am disappointed that the government still have no certain method to solve these discomforts until the experiment ends. I wonder when I would not be concerned about sanitary pads.”
Additionally, the monopoly and oligopoly structure and price bubble in the sanitary pad market are considered as fundamental problems. For instance, Yuhan Kimberly dominates the half of the market and when summed up with Klean Nara, LG Unicharm and P&G, these corporations dominate about 90 percent. It means consumers could have trouble finding other choices but had to use these corporations’ products. Thus, it becomes unnecessary for corporations to make an effort to appeal for consumers.
According to the Korea Consumer Agency, domestic sanitary pad’s average price is 331 won, which is about two times more expensive than that of Denmark, 156 won and Japan, 181 won and also the highest prices among the OECD member nations. Given that raw materials’ price of sanitary pads has lowered, it can be presumed that the corporate structure made expensive prices possible. Kim Sang-jo, the Director General of Fair Trading, mentioned, “If the legislature allows authorities to regulate pricing abuse, I will do my best to make a fair market system.”
Members of Ecofem are protesting in front of the Government Seoul Complex to demand proper investigation about sanitary pads.
/Photography from Ecofem
Diverse activities enacted by women’s organizations and universities
On September 5th, “Ecofem” held a protest urging the MFDS to implement an epidemiological survey and check all the components at the front gate of the Integrated Government Building. That is, as the inspection items are limited to VOCs, it is insufficient to find out the causes of side effects. They also had a “Die-in performance” lying down while shouting slogans “My body is the proof.” Moreover, on the 20th, emergency debates were held by “Ecofem” and the women’s committee of Justice Party with the subject “Safety of sanitary pads and women’s health.” About 40 people participated and six of them gave a presentation and discussed subjects including the Media’s proper role and women’s right.
Female university students have also been taking actions to overcome the matter. Some students voluntarily held a group purchase of alternative products. On the Internet community of Dong-Ah Institute of Media and Arts, one student posted an article to ask for group purchase with other students and many students showed interest in this action.
In addition, there was an action by the General Coed Student Council (GCSC) of each university. KyungHee University’s General Coed Student Council “Woorisai” started a demand survey of menstrual cups and harmless sanitary pads. The GCSC of Dongguk University conducted a group purchase called “kkuldeal.” Sung Im-eun, the chairperson of the GCSC, mentioned “There were lots of other items not related to sanitary pads in our purchase items. However, according to the purchase requisition, students purchased cotton pads the most and the menstrual cup followed.”
Continuous concern will be needed to gain our right
The government is taking an initial step to make a right standard for the first time all over the world. When we analyze the government and corporations’ conduct, it does not seem that they are interested in guaranteeing women’s basic safety. Thus, in our society the women’s right to pursue happiness should be discussed actively. The government ought to reflect women’s needs, make an accurate investigation, and solve the unfair structure of the market and price bubble. Women should also keep their eyes on the government and corporations’ behaviors and make efforts to solve the problem together.
Seo Yoo-jeong firstname.lastname@example.org
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