Earlier this week, we all shuddered in unison upon learning that some Kotex Natural Balance tampons, possibly tainted with bacteria and "metallic particles," were stolen and fraudulently sold under shadowy circumstances. Kimberly-Clark, Kotex's Irving-based parent company, says they've received no reports of health issues stemming from the tainted tampons. They still recommend that customers check their own boxes to make sure they aren't using one of the lot numbers that were affected . If you are, then stop. Obviously.
"It's not really a recall, because we don't know where the product is," Kimberly-Clark spokesperson Bob Brand told us. "We're not in a recall situation. They were never meant to be in the hands of consumers in the first place. That's why we sent them off for destruction."
We were talking to Brand because we had some questions about what tampon destruction involves. More accurately, our web editor Nick Rallo had questions. A lot of them.
"Is there like a warehouse filled with rejected tampons somewhere?" he asked me, as if I would know off-hand. "How do they destroy them? Is there a giant bonfire of tampons? That's awesome."
To appease Nick, I called Brand at Kimberly-Clark. "How exactly are the tampons destroyed?" I asked.
"They're churned up into fuel pellets," he replied casually.
Wait, what? What kind of fuel? Tampon fuel? Who makes tampon fuel? Who uses it?
"I don't know" how it's used, Brand said. The tampon-to-fuel process, he said, "is done by an outside company and we send it there and that's basically how it is." He wouldn't name the outside company. "Actually, the investigation with the FDA is ongoing, so we're not giving details about the vendor or what may be involved in the process. It's a routine procedure for us for products that don't pass our final inspection, we send them off for destruction."
We found what we believe may be the patent for the tampon-fuel technology Kimberly-Clark uses. The "method of making pelletized fuel," as it's properly known, was invented by a Wisconsin man, Albert H. Jesse, in 1993. Jesse lives in Neenah, Wisconsin, where Kimberly-Clark was based before moving to Irving in 1985.
Jesse wasn't the first to invent pelletized fuel, but he appears to have been among the inventors who pioneered the use of "selected waste materials" as fuel in order to prevent them from filling up landfills. The patent calls for the use of cellulosic fiber and thermoplastic resin; tampons use cellulose fibers, as do disposable diapers and sanitary napkins, while tampon applicators and some pads can contain thermoplastic resin.
"Exemplary hygiene pads are presently marketed under the trade names Kotex, Always, New Freedom, Light Days, and the like," Jesse wrote in his delightful patent description. "Such products include containment resin layers, absorbent batting layers, and a variety of transport and utility layers made with paper, non-wovens, and the like." He noted that some products also use "so-called super absorbent materials," which he said were also "acceptable" for fuel.
Jesse hasn't yet returned a phone call, so we don't know how he came up with this brilliant idea, which his patent says is meant to be used in combination with coal in coal-burning furnaces.
In any case, Kimberly-Clark was sending their reject tampons to that unnamed outside company because of "imperfect raw materials," the press release stated. What exactly does that mean?
"The quality of the cotton may be rougher than we like," spokesperson Brand told us. Or something else like that. "It didn't pose a major health risk, but it didn't pass our final inspection." The plan to turn them into tampofuel was foiled by a thieving fiend or fiends, who made off with the tampons and sold them between October 1, 2011, and June 28.
Because of the ongoing criminal investigation by the FDA, the company's being tight-lipped about how or where the products were stolen and where they were sold. It's also unclear why an advisory is just now being issued in September. But Brand said the company believes the tampons were distributed on the "gray market," meaning that they were sold through venues not authorized by Kimberly-Clark.
"The gray market's not an illegal market, but it's outside of Kimberly-Clark's distribution channels," he said. "We don't know where they were, where they are now, what condition they're in. They could be sold on the Internet."
Tampons are definitely being sold on the Internet, on sites like eBay, where we found this vendor, who's selling Natural Balance Supers, one of the products possibly affected. The vendor doesn't list the lot number on the boxes, so it's not possible to be completely certain. However, eBay and other Internet sale and auction sites are widely cited as one of the key gray market distribution channels.
Brand said that Kimberly-Clark "routinely monitors" the gray market, "to see what of our products might be out there. It's a situation where we'd prefer our products not be sold. In that process, we discovered this product that had not been destroyed."
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Could he be more specific about how Kimberly-Clark monitors the gray market?
"No," Brand replied, with some finality.
Natural Balances seem to soak up trouble lately; last year, the FDA issued a recall for some 1,400 boxes of the Regulars, which were being sold at Walmarts in Texas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and New Mexico. The tampons were made with a raw material that was contaminated with Enterobacter sakazakii, now known as Cronobacter. The bacteria can cause "vaginal infections, urinary tract infections, pelvic inflammatory disease or infections that can be life-threatening," according to the FDA, especially among women with HIV, cancer, or other immune system-compromising conditions. Brand told MSNBC at the time that a single plastic tube was found to be contaminated, leading to the recall.
That concludes "Everything You Never Knew About Tampons and Didn't Want To Ask." If you're using tampons off eBay -- Kotex or any other kind -- you should probably just quit that right now.