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Feminine Care Product Disposal

The Most Hazardous Spot in Women’s Restrooms
BY ANN GERMANOW

The disposal of feminine care products in women’s restrooms is the problem no one wants to talk about.

Many tampon manufacturers label their products as flushable, but people in the plumbing industry, and those paying the bills, know better. Tampons, which can swell to 10 times their size and do not break down like organic material, are major culprits in clogging toilets and plumbing infrastructure, resulting in expensive repairs and time consuming cleanups.

Worse, though, is the commonly accepted method for disposal of soiled feminine care products in public restrooms, a metal or plastic hinged receptacle, poses a health risk to patrons and janitorial staff. Since hand contact is required to open the lids, disposal can be dangerous.

Dr. Charles Gerba, professor of Microbiology at the University of Arizona, has been studying bacteria growth in restrooms for more than two decades and has found that the number-one bacteria hot spot in a woman’s restroom is the “sanitary” napkin disposal unit.

Beyond the contents placed in them, contaminants in the mist that emits from toilet flush can coat partition walls and the disposal units with hepatitis A virus, E. coli, salmonella, cryptosporidium, staphylococcus, and C. diff. And the findings of a recent study conducted by Ethox International for The Scensible Source Co. are consistent with Gerba’s analyses.

Additionally the study showed that unlined interiors of these disposal units yielded more than ten times the microbiological contamination of the exterior surfaces. Let’s not forget, either, the aesthetics of the finest restrooms can be ruined by the unsightliness of the sanitary napkin disposal units.

Restroom users and custodial workers are exposed daily to potentially harmful germs and blood borne pathogens with only minimal precautions available to protect them. Both hepatitis B and C are extremely hardy; and may survive outside the body for several days, even on a dry surface, and still be infectious.

Since it is impossible to identify infected individuals before they use the restrooms, facility management should follow standard precautions that treat all blood and bodily fluids, including menstrual blood, as if they are infected and potentially harmful.

For example, the Hepatitis Foundation International recommends that bloodstained material such as tampons and menstrual pads be placed into sealable plastic bags before disposing of them in waste receptacles.

“Even OSHA does not significantly address this issue, although it clearly is a blood and body fluid of concern and a common blood-contact opportunity,” said Lynn Kraft, a building services contractor and ICAN/ATEX associate. “Used feminine hygiene products present a health concern for the custodians and others who have contact with the receptacle before it is disinfected, assuming that it ever is. This is an area demanding more attention and some advances in disposal technology.”

Receptacles are a perfect breeding ground for odor-causing bacterial growth, especially because the units are covered with a lid, trapping moisture; and the insides are rarely, if ever, thoroughly cleaned.

Additionally, there is nothing more offensive for conscientious restroom patrons than having to discard products in a visibly dirty sanitary napkin receptacle, overflowing with smelly, unsightly items.

Tampons that do not disperse or disintegrate and maintain their structure throughout the sewer system can damage pumps and other waste treatment equipment and may contribute to raw sewage overflows into local waterways.

It is common to see signs posted in female restrooms stating, “Stop flushing tampons down the toilet.” A recent janitorial services blog confirms that if no acceptable alternative for disposal is offered, women ignore the signage and flush anyway. “There are four signs in the bathrooms, on the door, near the mirror, on the tampon machine and even on the bathroom door. And (women) keep flushing.”

Darrell Cole, a quality control manager for Mechanical Partners Inc., Dallas, Texas, has seen the problems feminine care products cause in sewer and septic systems first hand. “Any solid matter put down a toilet has the potential to cause blockages. With a variety of piping systems used throughout the US, each has its own inherent attributes that result in blockages caused by feminine care products-such as tampon strings catching on tree-roots and “scale-up” inside cast iron pipes, and pads and tampons stacking-up in bellied sections of PVC or ABS plastic piping.”

Outside of health care facilities, there are no regulations in place to protect housekeepers or janitorial staff from exposure to blood or other potentially infectious material. OSHA guidelines simply dictate that feminine care products be discarded in waste containers that are properly lined to prevent contact with the contents.

The most common product on the market used for this purpose is brown waxed paper bags. Since the bags do not hold their form to line the receptacle, soiled product piles up outside of the bag and does not remain contained to prevent direct contact during removal. Cleaning staff must be cautious when reaching into containers to remove used products to prevent accidental puncture by needles and other sharps disposed of in the stall waste receptacle.

Another significant problem occurs when custodial staff place stacks of clean waxed paper bags inside the receptacles. This sends a mixed message to restroom users that the receptacle is a trash can to discard feminine waste not a dispenser of disposal bags. Once the first user discards waste, subsequent users are reluctant to reach in for a clean bag for fear of touching dirty items. This results in an unsanitary mess.

Innovative Solutions

Users expect the most hygienic restroom fixtures; facility managers want fewer plumbing problems and are taking steps to create greener environments; and cleaning companies want to protect their crew from high risk exposure. As distributors such as Harvey Hiller, president of Liberty Paper and Janitorial Supply in Bayonne New Jersey, says “until you bring it up to customers, you don’t realize how big of a problem it is for facility managers.

It is our responsibility to introduce new and improved products to our customers that are the solution to real problems.”

Some manufacturers have responded to this need with innovative products. A new personal disposal bag system for feminine care products is being installed in restrooms across the U.S. The singleuse biodegradable bags with a tie handle closure to conceal the contents are dispensed from refillable units that mount to the partition.

Perry Shimanoff, a cleaning consultant who has worked with public sector organizations for the past 31 years believes that safe, green alternatives to traditional disposal methods need to be adopted.

“Although no one likes to discuss disposal of feminine products, with new replacement systems – everyone benefits: customers, custodians, and the environment,” says Shimanoff. ❑

Ann Germanow is the founder and CEO of the Scensible Source Company, a supplier of disposal solutions for feminine care products. More information on this topic can be found at www.scensiblesource. com. 

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