Desperately Seeking A Tampon? There’s An App For That

For 18-year-old Olenka Polak, the eureka moment came in a Harvard bathroom.

While at the college’s innovation lab attending a recent “start-up scramble” aimed at helping young entrepreneurs develop new ideas, Olenka, a sopohmore, went to the women’s restroom and was pleasantly surprised by a basket full of free tampons. How cool, she thought. But then she wondered: What if there were no free tampons and the vending machine was out of order and you were just plain stuck in “a periodic emergency?”

That’s when Olenka had the flash: “Wouldn’t it be cool to have this community of women on a mobile platform and have this kind of tampon hand-off where you could earn points for donating a tampon to a fellow sister in need?”

With this vision of girl-power camraderie dancing in her head, Olenka returned to the event, raised her hand and pitched her idea: There, Code Red, the mobile tampon app, was born.

The mobile app would allow users to send out a “red alert” if they were stuck in an emergency without a tampon.

A Code Red team including Olenka and two other women — Isha Agarwal and Yogeeta Manglani, both 24-year-old graduate students in global health at Harvard’s School of Public Health — quickly coalesced and started brainstorming. They came up with a simple prototype: a mobile app that would allow women in need to send out a “red alert” that would ping other nearby users who could rush over and delivery a tampon or sanitary pad or share information on where the nearest working tampon vending machine might be. (The machines are usually out of order and in some buildings simply non-existent, said Agarwal, who is also a student at Harvard Medical School.)

The interface the team has developed asks whether a pad or tampon is preferred; respondents can send back a yes or no answer about whether help is on the way. They can also initiate a chat, to say, for example, “class is just wrapping up, I’ll be there in 10 minutes.” The mockup also includes “health bytes,” a running ticker of women’s health stories to read while you’re waiting. The mapping system would track and update users’ GPS locations with each ping.

Security is clearly an issue and the team has proposed an initial launch within the Harvard community to enable a verification system using Harvard ID numbers.

But beyond tampon distribution, the Code Red team hopes to broaden its reach and become a platform for other types of women’s health needs.

For example, the app might include an automatic phone reminder for women to change their tampons in order to cut their risk of toxic shock syndrome. Continue reading

Kotex Contamination Recall: ‘Natural Balance’ Security Tampons

A Kotex ad from 1952

It does make the “security” in the tampon title a bit, shall we say, ironic? They may keep you safe from leakage, but at the price of bacterial infection.

We never did solve the mystery of the disappearing o.b.’s, but now there’s more bad news about tampons: The company that makes Kotex is recalling some of its Natural Balance Security Unscented Tampons, in the regular absorbency size, because of bacterial contamination. Here’s a piece of the recall on the FDA’s Website, here, and hat-tip to the folks at Parenting.com for pointing it out.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – November 9, 2011 – Effective November 9, 2011, Kimberly-Clark announced a product recall of a limited number of its Kotex Natural Balance* Security® Unscented Tampons Regular Absorbency distributed to specific stores in the United States.

This recall is limited to two product SKUs (carton codes), 15063 (18 count) and 15068 (36 count). The tampons were manufactured with a raw material contaminated with a bacterium, Enterobacter sakazakii, which may cause health risks, including vaginal infections, urinary tract infections (UTIs), pelvic inflammatory disease or infections that can be life-threatening.  Women with serious existing illnesses, cancer or immune-compromised conditions, such as HIV, are at increased risk.  There is limited evidence of transfer between individuals with this bacterium. Continue reading

O.b. Update: No Official Word Yet, But Laments Nationwide

An update on the Great Tampon Mystery of the suddenly non-existent o.b.’s (Please see the first post here, and post your comments at the bottom of it so we keep them all in one place):

I called the Johnson & Johnson communications person who handles the o.b. brand again today and left another message. Still no call-back. The FDA spokeswoman on medical devices says she’s still trying to track down the appropriate expert, and will keep us posted as quickly as possible.

That’s it on the official news. But unofficially, there’s been an outpouring of responses to the first post from o.b.-seekers around the country. Several were happy to read official news about the o.b. disappearance because their fruitless searches made them feel somehow that they must be going crazy. (Ah, our tendency to self-blame!!)

Commenters report empty o.b. shelves from upper New York state to Canada to San Diego. One Californian has even put up a Website (it’s here) asking fans of the o.b. Ultra (which has been officially discontinued, unlike the other sizes) to sign a petition and pressure Johnson & Johnson to bring the Ultra back.

This from Canada:

I am from Ottawa, Canada and have noticed the shortage in a number of our stores. Luckily, I live close to a number of small rural towns and was able to wing out to one of their grocery stores and clear out their stock (which was not much!). I ended up with about 70$ in tampons and a decidedly confused cashier.

This from San Diego:

I was wondering what was going on. I’ve been to several different stores and even on Amazon. NO one has any! I’m about to buy them on Ebay if I have to. They are the only thing I use. I tried others and they were awful. I hope this gets sorted out!

This from Washington, DC:

I thought I was slowly going mad, hallucinating that these things once existed after not being able to find them at Target, CVS et al. I blamed it on supply-chain issues, since many shelves in the city are bare compared to the abundance of the suburbs, but I just saw this post on my sidebar and almost dropped my laptop out of shock. Thank you for looking in to this!

This from Colorado:

No OBs in Colorado either. Just a small mountain town grocery store had them. My husband thought three boxes on Ebay (40/box) for $75 may be a good deal. Ha, ha. I checked Alabama while visiting – none there either. I gave up on applicators when they would show up on the Lake Michigan beach shore line (where I am originally from), it’s just gross.

And another from San Diego:

I’m in San Diego and I’m livid! This is the first news coverage I’ve seen about this issue. If it were a viagra shortage, there would be riots in the street. I too have written to Johnson and Johnson. Accroding to blogs, some women are starting a letter writing campaign, buying tampons from England (Lil-lets), and even boycotting Johnson and Johnson. The company really did handle this badly. I’ve never used any other brand but now I’m joining the England contingent.

The Great Tampon Mystery: Where Have All The o.b.’s Gone?

o.b. update: J&J Say Stores Are Restocking; Are They? One Writer’s Tale

It’s decidedly odd. In drugstores around Boston — and apparently around the country — the shelves that normally hold o.b.’s, the no-applicator tampons, are yawningly empty. I tried CVS. I tried Walgreens. Nothing but gaps that remind me of the years I spent reporting in the old Soviet Union, with its unstocked food stores. (Some may also recall a classic Seinfeld episode in which Elaine hears that the Today contraceptive sponge is going off the market, and buys out the supply in all of her neighborhood stores.)

My crack-reporter friend, who alerted me to the situation, writes:

I called Johnson and Johnson yesterday, and they said that only the Ultra has been discontinued but the others are having some sort of mysterious manufacturing delay and will be back on the shelves eventually. What? Do they contain a secret ingredient that is only available from Somalia? Anyway, I lodged a formal, semi-crazed PMS-induced protest with J&J. They are really pissing off the wrong group of women, don’t you think?

Yes, she may be a little hormonal these days, but if anything that makes her more dogged. She adds:

After being unable to find them at any normal place, I checked Drugstore.com, etc – no dice. Then I went on Amazon and eBay, because I thought maybe there was just a weird shortage in MA. So yesterday they were $75+ a box and when I called J&J the lady told me that she had seen them on ebay for $130. That’s more than $3 a tampon! J&J lady also told me they were getting “a flood” of complaints. No pun intended! Ha ha.

Naturally, I had to take up the baton from her. First, it’s just strange. Second, o.b.s are not just tampons. They’re iconic, representative of the branch of the feminist movement that encouraged women to become comfortable with their own bodies. (Because o.b.s have no applicator, women need to get a little more intimate with themselves when inserting them.) And they’re appealingly no-frills, adding no applicator plastic to the landfills. When a blogger on the Jezebel site bemoaned the discontinuation of the Ultra, many other users chimed in, agreeing.

I have a call in to the Johnson & Johnson spokeswoman who handles the o.b. brand. I checked with the Consumer Product Safety Commission to see if there had been a recall, but they sent me over to the FDA, which determined that tampons are considered a medical device. Still waiting to hear back from them. Please stay tuned.

(And here’s an update: No official word yet, but reports of empty o.b. shelves nationwide.)

And yet another update here.