1980: The Worst Year in Tampon History

Cristen Conger

A Meds tampon ad from 1967, the carefree pre-toxic shock syndrome era.
A Meds tampon ad from 1967, the carefree pre-toxic shock syndrome era.
source: Nesster/flickr

For tampon manufacturers, 1980 was a terrible, no good year. Since the late 1930s, American women had been using tampons in increasing numbers, but in 1978, the medical identification of "toxic shock syndrome" (TSS) set the stage for a terrible tampon public relations disaster. The first TSS study was published in the Lancet, but it didn't have anything to do with menstruating women. Rather, it documented a collection of Staphylococcus-related symptoms among seven children, one of whom died; TSS is essentially is a staph infection gone haywire, causing fever, shock and possible organ failure.

A couple years later in May 1980, the Centers for Disease Control and prevention investigated 55 TSS cases that had been reported around the U.S. and discovered that 95 percent of the patients were women. Not only that, 95 percent of those women exhibited TSS symptom onset during their periods; further study found that women with TSS were more likely to have been using tampons at the time. That this newly identified disease was suddenly sprouting up among women caused an understandable panic. Doctors weren't sure exactly what the menstruation-tampon-TSS connection was, and in late November 1980, The New York Times reported 63 TSS-related deaths out of 652 reported cases. Additional Times headlines echo the public health panic that ensued:

As doctors and scientists frantically sought to explain the TSS spike, high-absorbancy tampons were implicated as likely culprits. Women tended to leave those tampons in longer, which promotes bacterial infection, and one brand in particular was made of a synthetic material that may have also put women at a higher risk of contracting TSS. In September 1980, high-absorbency Rely tampons were pulled off the market since they contained a polyester foam infused with a chemical carboxymethylcellulose that, along with the pH change in the vagina that occurs during menstruation, promoted bacterial grown.

Since then, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration enforced stricter tampon regulation, requiring manufacturers to steer away from high-absorbency, chemical-laced design and also include toxic shock warnings on tampon packaging that have terrified many a pubescent girl into thinking twice about the maxi pad alternative. Those fears are overblown, though, since cases of menstrual-related TSS have dropped drastically from 814 in 1980 to just five in 1997. Today, the National Institutes of Health notes that menstrual-related TSS comprise less than half the overall incidences. But as a result of this widely publicized connection between toxic shock and tampons, many people erroneously think that those menstrual aids alone cause TSS, when in fact, it's a gender-neutral disease not even maxi pads, panty liners and menstrual cups can full prevent.