Ever since the model and activist nearly lost her life to TSS — a complication from bacterial inflections primarily associated with tampon use — in 2012, Wasser has made it her mission to raise awareness about prevention while fighting for safer products from the major tampon companies.
“My life was almost taken from me [by] something that could have been easily changed,” Wasser, 30, tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue, which also includes her first photos as a double amputee. “That’s why I’m using my voice and trying to bring as much awareness as possible. This is my purpose.”
In 2012, Wasser was an active 24-year-old when she contracted TSS and needed a below-the-knee amputation of her right leg. She had been on her period at the time, and though she had changed her tampon throughout the day, she still was struck by the disease.
“Girls always associate it with leaving it in too long, and that’s the biggest misconception,” she says. “People think it can’t happen to them, and it can. It happens to a lot of people.”
In January 2018, Wasser had her left leg amputated after dealing with years of pain from complications caused by TSS.
Though the disease does not only strike females, there has been an established link between TSS and tampons since the spike in TSS-related deaths in the 1980s. While tampons are generally made from a blend of cotton and rayon, the product boxes are not required to list all ingredients.
“If you look on the box it [says] ‘chlorine, bleach, rayon, and etcetera.’ What does etcetera mean?” asks Wasser. “We’re putting this in the most absorbent part of our body, and that raises a lot of questions.”
She adds: “We can do better than this, and I think we, as women, should demand it.”
In an attempt to enact change through Congress, Wasser has worked with Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, who first introduced legislation in 1997 requiring manufacturers be more transparent about the makeup of tampons, pads and other feminine hygiene products.
But Maloney’s bill has failed to move beyond the floor time and again.
“It’s just for us, as women, to know what’s going in feminine hygiene products, and what the long-term effects are 3 to 10 years from now after using them consistently,” Wasser says. “I think we should be able to know what’s actually going in these products. I really hope a lot of women will wake up, read this bill and speak up.”
- Watch the full episode of People Features: Lauren Wasser: A Toxic Shock Syndrome Survivor’s New Mission streaming now on PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.
Wasser and her photographer girlfriend Jennifer Rovero have met with multiple women who have been affected by TSS to hear their stories, including Lisa Elifritz, a mother whose 20-year-old daughter Amy died in 2010 from the disease.
“These girls are getting their periods much younger — eight, nine, ten years old, and they’re using these products, it might be the first time they use it, and they’re ending up in the hospital on life support,” Wasser says, adding that it’s important to educate girls about the potential risks.
For more from Lauren Wasser, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
Though Wasser says she doesn’t have a solution for 100 percent safe tampons, she’s focused on pushing for safer alternatives and helping women who have also had their lives impacted by TSS.
“At the end of the day, it’s learning to love yourself regardless of the skin you’re in and whatever battles you’ve had to battle and knowing that you could push through,” she says. “It’s all possible. I think me sharing my story, hitting all of those moments of my life, hopefully I’d be relatable to someone in their situation and give them hope.”