Update: This story has been updated with comment from Target, which said it has "reviewed video footage and have not found any suspicious behavior."
Last night, America was seized with horror when Bill Melugin, a reporter for the local Fox affiliate in Los Angeles, tweeted an image of a tampon being pulled from a cup with the tip of a distinctive green straw.
An off-duty LAPD officer, according to Melugin, found the tampon in a blended coffee drink he'd purchased at a Starbucks inside a Target in Diamond Bar, and later filed a report with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.
"This disgusting assault on a police officer was carried out by someone with hatred in their heart and who lacks human decency," the LAPD's union told Melugin.
The story, though, raised questions, and not just because of the long history of cops claiming to have been assaulted by fast-food workers, only for those claims to turn out to be nonsense. According to Melugin's reporting, the officer could only have been identified by their police credit union debit card. As anyone who's been in a Starbucks since the coronavirus pandemic began knows, though, cashiers don't handle debit cards. As the story goes, then, the cashier would have had to closely scrutinize the officer's card as they ran it through the machine and alert a barista to their identity; the barista, making the drink in plain sight, would have then have had to acquire a tampon and put it into the drink after it had been through a blender.
Even if it is a tampon, who's to say a barista even put it there—it is, of course, just a decontextualized photo of a tampon-like object and a cup.
Further questions were raised by the image itself. For one thing, the tampon didn't look much like a used tampon. For another, there was no string visible in the image. Finally, while this may simply have been due to the angle at which the photo was taken, the supposed tampon seemed implausibly large, more fit for a hill giant of some sort than anyone who would fit behind a counter.
In order to see if the cop's story was even remotely plausible, Motherboard performed a science experiment. Aric Toler, a researcher at Bellingcat—an organization which analyzes open source media and has, for example, exposed the use of chemical weapons use in Syria by studying video and photographic evidence—suggested, in the interests of rigor, that we buy 10 Frappuccinos and 10 different types of tampons. Given the fact that we were biking and did not want to spend a fortune, we decided instead to try one Frappuccino and one tampon and see how that went.
We biked to the nearest Starbucks and ordered a grande caramel Frappuccino. (A barista confirmed that all Frappuccino cups have the same lids and thus the same-sized diameters.) The barista did not find the LA Sheriff's Department's story plausible, but did not want to do much more than laugh when shown the image; as noted by Melugin, we bought the Frappuccino from behind a plexiglass wall—the cashier never handled our credit card, and would have had to have leaned over quite unnaturally to have seen the card. The Frappuccino was prepared and served within 30 seconds.
Motherboard then biked to Walgreens to purchase tampons.
As any menstruating person surely knows, tampons do not come in “sizes,” but are instead sold according to absorbency. According to FDA regulations section 21 CFR 801.430(d), tampons must be labeled with one of five different absorbency terms. Tampons that absorb less than 6 grams of liquid are called “light absorbency,” tampons that absorb between 6 and 9 grams of liquid are “regular absorbency,” 9-12 is “super,” 12-15 is “super plus,” and 15-18 is “ultra.” Companies are allowed to sell tampons that absorb more than 18 grams of liquid, but there is no corresponding term for this, and these tampons appear to be quite rare. (Motherboard could not find any tampons for sale online that advertised absorbency of more than 18 grams; surely they exist, but they do not appear to be readily available.) The FDA warns that as tampons enter the “ultra” range, there is the risk of “fiber sloughing,” which could make them dangerous without proper testing. Tampons that absorb more liquid are wider, not longer than tampons that absorb less liquid.
Motherboard purchased Playtex “Super Plus sport” tampons; there were no ultra tampons for sale at the specific Walgreens we went to.
Representatives for the manufacturers of Kotex, Always, Stayfree, Carefree, and Playtex brand tampons did not respond to Motherboard's requests for expert opinion on whether the tampon in the image might be one of theirs, or whether, given its seeming size, it was plausibly a tampon at all.
To get FDA approval, tampon manufacturers must perform the “Syngyna testing” method. This involves placing a “preweighted tampon” into “an unlubricated condom, with tensile strength between 17 Mega Pascals and 30 MPa … so that the center of gravity of the tampon is at the center of the chamber.” A “syngyna” fluid made up of “10 grams sodium chloride, .5 gram Certified Reagent Acid Fushsin, and 1,000 milliliters distilled water” is then pumped in via a 14-gauge infusion needle “at a rate of 50 milliliters per hour … The test shall be terminated when the tampon is saturated and the first drop of fluid exits the apparatus.”
Motherboard did not have access to this apparatus, but instead performed two tests: First, we inserted a dry, clean tampon directly into the Frappuccino and let it soak for 10 minutes. Second, we soaked a tampon in a cup of water for two minutes to create a “used” tampon, and then inserted it into the Frappuccino for two hours.
There are a few things worth noting from our findings.
- It's easy to hide a tampon inside a caramel Frappuccino. The tampon can easily be inserted into the middle of the drink without being detected. In fact, an innocent bystander—a reporter's girlfriend—walked into the kitchen and took a sip of the Frappuccino, thinking we hadn’t yet started the experiment. She did not detect a cotton or chemical taste.
- Tampons expand outward, not lengthwise. After absorbing the Frappuccino, the tampon did not become significantly longer than it was when it was in its applicator case. Instead, it expanded to be wider, presumably because it is designed to prevent the leakage of menstrual blood out of a woman’s vagina.
- The tampon we tested had two parts that were connected together by the string. It created a “clump” that was more shaped like a plus-sign in the Frappuccino rather than a long rod. We had to manually twist the tampon and pull it lengthwise to stretch it out to mimic the photo that was shared on Twitter. When dunked into water, this is how the tampon expanded:
- The tampon that was soaked in water, then transferred to the Frappuccino and left for two hours did not look significantly different than the one that was simply soaked in the Frappuccino.
- The tampon at full absorbency was four inches long.
Here is what the tampon looked like when we tried to recreate the LASD’s photo:
Toler of Bellingcat said “lol not even close” when we showed him our photo, taken from a similar vantage point. When we explained our methods he said they were “rigorous enough for me.”
The diameter of a Starbucks cup is 3.75 inches (as measured with a tape measure). Using this diameter, it is possible to attempt to calculate the size of the tampon-like object shared by the LASD using a common technique used by Bellingcat and other open source investigators. By taking a known measurement—in this case, the diameter of the cup—and comparing it to an unknown measurement (the tampon-like object), you can calculate a rough measurement of that object.
The diameter of the cup in the LASD photo is 1,202 pixels on the image we analyzed. Since we know the diameter is 3.75 inches in the real world, this means that 3.75 inches in the photo is roughly 1,202 pixels. We can then measure the length of the tampon in pixels (roughly 1,589 pixels) and create a proportion to calculate the rough length of the tampon (or tampon-like object).
That proportion and math looks like this:
So, the object in question is roughly 4.957 inches, which is longer than the tampon we tested. Suspicious, but not outside the realm of possibility for a lesser-quality tampon. Other things to keep in mind is that it appears the very bottom of the tampon is cut off in the photo uploaded to Twitter, and we do not know what zoom the image was taken at.
Our science experiment done, we turned to official sources in search of an explanation. In a statement, the LASD confirmed that a report had been filed and that detectives were investigating the case:
"Walnut Station Detectives are investigating an incident of alleged poisoning of food or drink at a local business. The incident was reported to have occurred Friday, June 19, 2020 at approximately 2:30p.m., on the 700 block of Grand Avenue in the city of Diamond Bar. The victim as a male White 36 years-old. This is an ongoing investigation. No further information is available at this time."
The LASD declined to answer questions about whether they had, as Melugin reported, obtained surveillance footage from the Target in question, and, if so, when. "The detective," the department said, "has not released any additional information yet."
A Starbucks representative, who noted that baristas working at the Starbucks in the Diamond Bar Target would actually be Target employees, stressed that the company has "no tolerance for disrespectful behavior," and assured Motherboard that they would work with Target to investigate the incident. They also noted, though, that according to news reports, "the officer was not in uniform and claims he was identified by using his union debit card"—an improbability, according to our reporting.
A Target representative said "We take this allegation seriously. We have reviewed video footage and have not found any suspicious behavior. We have shared the video with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and look forward to the conclusions of their investigation."
All of this—our tests, the length of the tampon, the apparent massive degradation of whatever this object is, the lack of string, the fact that cops have been caught lying about this sort of thing before, the open questions around the surveillance footage, the difficulty inherent in being able to tell that someone was a cop because they used a certain debit card while making a contactless payment, the fact that someone would probably have had to infect the Frappuccino with a tampon in plain sight—suggests that this object could very well be Not a Tampon. Given our tests, we can't conclusively rule out that it is a tampon; given the information at hand, we can't conclusively rule out any conclusions about how it might have ended up in a Frappuccino. One thing is clear.
"LAPD one looks," as Toller said, "like it was sitting in a coffee cup for a week on someone's dashboard."