Written by Elena Holmes.
A participant in one of our Managing Menstruation in Extreme Environments focus groups told me she wondered when faced with the prospect of undertaking a particularly exciting expedition, ‘what do I do with a tampon in Antarctica?’ The focus group discussed a wealth of ideas surrounding menstruation in adventure, but later I fell back to thinking about her question. Would I, if given the opportunity to go to Antarctica, for example, have the same query about menstrual waste disposal? Was the information easily accessible?
Believing that a simple Google search would probably do the trick, I learned that all operators are obliged to reduce the amount of waste produced or disposed of in Antarctica to protect the environment. However, I found no mention of sanitary waste practice until after I trawled through the exciting document, ‘A Review of Waste Management in the Antarctic’, which informed me that ‘all biohazardous waste (which includes sanitary waste), generated at Scott Base and in the field, is returned to New Zealand by ship in sealed receptacles packed together in a designated shipping container’. Pads and tampons, apparently, are ‘collected in a solid human waste bucket’ when in the field.
There was no further information about how sanitary waste was collected should you be away from the ‘human waste bucket’, however, but then perhaps I didn’t know enough about the sorts of expeditions occurring and the resources they would have access to – or, for instance, the length of time individuals who might be menstruating would be away from waste facilities.
Perhaps the waste bucket was adequate provision for menstruating humans?
The Antarctica example, though, is just one of numerous other questions indicative of the wider need for menstruation-related information for women in adventure. Many similar questions can be generated once you start considering menstruation in extreme contexts. What, for example, do you do with a tampon on Everest? How do you manage menstruation if you are swimming the Channel? What happens when you are scuba-diving?
The fact remains that menstruation in different types of environments brings you up against the issue of waste disposal, especially in remote locations where there is limited, or no, access to disposal facilities. Non-recyclable items cannot be thrown away on the mountain or countryside as human waste can. Should the menstruating person then have to consider stopping their period altogether? Menstruating astronauts have often been told to take the Pill, and, according to a 2016 study on female astronauts and menstruation, no human has ever menstruated at the International Space Station, since the United States’ waste-disposal system there is not designed to deal with menstrual blood, so urine containing blood can’t be recycled as it usually would be.
But this takes us to another set of questions; there are many different types of pill and many different side effects. Unsurprisingly, people react differently to different drugs. And then there are the issues of altitude and the clot-promoting effect of some contraceptive pills, and the medical problems this could pose. This leads us to ethical dilemmas:
In the interest of environmental protection, should an individual risk their health?
Take the example of summiting Everest; can you risk going on the Pill? But how would you dispose of sanitary pads or tampons? The Guardian reports that climbers at base camps there do not have toilets and usually dig holes in the snow for toilet use, a practise that has meant waste has been building up for years around the four camps. There is no explicit mention of sanitary waste disposal, so presumably there is no system in place for this.
If you can’t dispose of your sanitary waste in an environmentally friendly way, there are reusable alternatives such as the menstrual cup. But if using a menstrual cup, would you be able to guarantee access to enough water to rinse it out between uses? Can you just free-bleed, or will the culture and society in which you are immersed be offended by such a decision? Will you feel comfortable doing so in front of others? Will it be an uncomfortable experience in itself that might affect your ability to perform to your desired level? What about personal hygiene?
Regarding diving, there is no definitive answer on whether tampons are good to use; some anecdotes online talk about a successful use of tampons, whilst others insist they need more regular changing or are uncomfortable. With the advent of menstrual cups, there is not yet definitive research about the effect of higher pressure on the cup, but the company Mooncup informed me that there had been ‘positive feedback’ from women using the cups when diving.
Stopping to change a tampon or a pad has a real impact on performance.
When considering many adventurous activities, stopping to change a tampon or a pad generates the question of how this affects performance – for example, if you’re trying to break records when swimming the Channel, you won’t want to mess about changing a tampon and wasting valuable time. And then, if you were to free-bleed, qualms are raised regarding sharks (are they attracted by menstrual blood, or is this a myth? Find out here!), and we find ourselves considering contraceptive pills again.
The barriers faced in terms of menstruation are not regularly or openly talked about, and little is done to address them. Of course, there is no one solution to all the varied issues someone menstruating may encounter in any single environment. However, there is one thing that could easily be done to begin to remove the obstacles menstruation may present, and that is to open up the conversation. People need to be encouraged to talk about the issues and situations that could come up, and to discuss how they can be overcome. None are insurmountable – we can land people on the moon, and so I’m sure we can work out a way for a woman to menstruate merrily on Everest.