ALLENDALE, N.J. -- The Today's Sponge contraceptive is back on the market, eight years after it disappeared from U.S. drug store shelves in an alarming turn famously depicted on a "Seinfeld" episode.
The return of the sponge is expected to lead to bulk buying - and perhaps more spontaneous romance - among its fiercely loyal users.
Allendale Pharmaceuticals, a start-up business in New Jersey, bought rights to Today's Sponge from the drug company that discontinued it. Allendale began selling it this month through two Canadian Internet sites.
More sponges, priced at the U.S. equivalent of about $2.90 each, will hit the shelves at 4,000 pharmacies, Wal-Marts and other stores across Canada, according to Allendale. The manufacturer is hoping for Food and Drug Administration approval to sell them in U.S. stores within a year.
"I think there's just thousands of people out there waiting for it," said Marisa Dawson, a nurse in Ocoee, Fla., who is awaiting a dozen sponges she paid for in advance last spring.
Roughly 250 million polyurethane Today's Sponges were sold from 1983 to 1995.
Originally made by a pharmaceutical giant now called Wyeth, it was taken off the market in 1995 after problems were found at the company's Hammonton factory. The FDA said the sponge's safety and effectiveness were never questioned. Wyeth simply stopped selling it rather than pay to upgrade its plant.
In a 1995 "Seinfeld" episode, Elaine runs around New York seeking the sponge, her favorite birth control. She finally locates a whole case at a pharmacy, and stretches the supply by deciding whether a boyfriend is "spongeworthy." She makes her boyfriend scrub his bathroom and pass other tests before she will have sex with him.
The episode was apparently more than a work of imagination: Plenty of real women ran store to store, buying up all they could. Dawson was living in New York City in 1995, and went hunting for sponges.
"I didn't do the 'spongeworthy' test, but I was hoarding them," Dawson said. "You want to talk about art imitating life!"
Since the disappearance of Today's Sponge, two foreign brands have been available over the Internet, but not in U.S. stores. Protectaid, made in Canada, lacks a withdrawal cord, and some women find it difficult to remove; Pharmatex, made in France, costs twice as much as Today's Sponge.
In 1998, Gene Detroyer, Allendale's president and chief executive, and a few partners scraped together money to buy the patents and the complex manufacturing equipment. Detroyer hoped to get the product back on shelves in a couple years. Instead, tougher new FDA standards for manufacturing and record keeping forced repeated delays and a switch from a contract manufacturer in Mainland, Pa., to one in Norwich, N.Y.
The first sponges will go mostly to 700 people who pre-ordered - 24 each, on average - as far back as January 2001, and to thousands more who subscribe to The Spongeworthy Watch, an e-mail newsletter from birthcontrol.com, said Barbara Bell, co-owner of the Internet women's products seller.
The sponge helps prevent pregnancy in two ways: It covers the cervix, and it contains a spermicide.
Many women preferred the sponge. It was not messy like creams and foams, was easy to insert and remove, could be kept in a purse or pocket, did not limit sensitivity, could be bought without a prescription and could be inserted well in advance of having sex. Unlike a diaphragm, the sponge does not have to be fitted by a doctor; one size fits all.
Many women also found it preferable to the pill, which has been linked to blood clots, heart attacks, strokes and other side effects and is not recommended for women who have heart problems or have had breast, cervical or ovarian cancer.
But contraceptive sponges do not protect against sexually transmitted diseases and do not prevent pregnancy as well as the pill, which is 99.1 percent to 99.5 percent effective if taken every day.
"For people who are very concerned about getting pregnant, it's probably not a good option, because it has a high failure rate," noted James Trussell, director of Princeton University's Office of Population Research and author of the book "Contraceptive Technology."
For women who use contraceptive sponges every time they have intercourse, 9 percent who have never had a child will become pregnant over a year, Trussell said. The rate rises to 20 percent after having a baby.
Still, Dr. Andrew M. Kaunitz, former chairman of the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals and a gynecologist at University of Florida Health Science Center in Jacksonville, "Lots of women would be delighted to see it become available again in this country."
Diane Butler, 45, of Westland, Mich., has had breast cancer and a mastectomy twice and was warned to avoid pregnancy. She never got pregnant while using Today's Sponge, but had two miscarriages on other methods.
"I'm out of options" for birth control, said Butler, who ordered $130 in sponges through the waiting list.
On the Net: http://www.allendalepharm.com
Global Health Options: http://www.g-h-o.co.uk
Internet Today's Sponge sellers: http://www.birthcontrol.com