This is part two in a series in which I discuss why my family uses cloth rather than disposable diapers. Like many parents, my husband and I discussed our options and factored in the environmental impact, health concerns, safety, and convenience of each diapering system. This article will focus on various health concerns associated with diapering.
Cloth Makes Healthy Babies*
The most obvious health concern with disposable diapers is the chemicals the diapers contain. There are three chemicals that have sparked intense criticism: dioxin, sodium polyacrylate, and tributyltin.
Dioxin can actually be a by-product in both cloth and disposable diaper manufacture. When chlorine bleaching is used to whiten the cotton found in cloth diapers or the paper used in disposables, dioxin is created. (1) Dioxin is a carcinogenic toxin; research has shown that it causes cancer, birth defects, liver damage, immune system suppression, and skin diseases. Trace quantities of dioxin remain in the diapers after the bleaching process, which can directly affect the health of the children wearing them. (2) The dioxin in disposables becomes a hazard to the general population once the diapers are dumped in landfills. (3)
Superabsorbent diapers contain another controversial chemical: sodium polyacrylate. Sodium polyacrylate is a powder inserted into the inner compartment of disposable diapers. It is the substance that allows disposable diapers to hold up to 7 lbs of liquid; it is also the “substance that was removed from tampons in 1985 because of its link to toxic shock syndrome.” (4) When the sodium polyacrylate powder is wet, it turns into a gel. If you have ever seen gel-like crystals oozing out of a wet disposable diaper, you’ve seen sodium polyacrylate. (5)
There have been no studies performed to determine what the long-term effects are of having this chemical in constant contact with babies’ reproductive organs. (6) We do know, however, that in the short term it can cause allergic reactions, severe skin irritations, oozing blood from the perineum and scrotum, fever, vomiting, and staph infections. Sodium polyacrylate has killed children who ingested as little as five grams of the chemical, and it causes health issues in the workers who manufacture it. (7)
“According to a 2000 study by Greenpeace International, most brands of disposable diapers contain Tributyl-tin (TBT).” (8) TBT is a toxic environmental pollutant. It is proven to “harm the immune system and impair the hormonal system.” There is also some speculation that it can cause male sterility. (9)
One disposable diaper company has claimed that its diapers are free of dioxin and TBT, and against all of the medical evidence, the company denies that sodium polyacrylate has negative health benefits. Another company official argues that the link between sodium polyacrylate and toxic shock syndrome is irrelevant to disposable diapers, because “toxic shock syndrome is caused by having a tampon inserted into the vagina over a long period of time . . . .”(10)
My (unscientific, untested) thoughts? If a woman can get toxic shock syndrome from a sodium polyacrylate-filled tampon after a matter of hours (days at the most), why would it surprise anyone to know that children can also be harmed by sitting in sodium polyacrylate-filled diapers for 2.5 years or more? It’s really not much of a leap.
Chemicals are not the only aspects of disposables that harm babies. Studies have shown that disposables’ airflow restrictions, dyes, fragrances, and bacteria problems all pose health hazards as well. A 2000 study correlated disposable diapers with higher scrotal temperatures than in cloth; these higher temperatures can impair fertility. (11)
Dyes and Fragrances
There are dyes found in disposable diapers that are known to cause damage to the central nervous system, kidneys, and liver, and they may be linked to cancer according to the Environmental Protection Agency. (12)
Fumes from both the chemicals and the fragrances contained in disposable diapers have been proven to cause asthma-like symptoms in both children and adults. Fragrances in disposables have also been linked to headaches, dizziness, rashes, and chemical burns according to the Food & Drug Administration. Chemicals released from diapers include tolune, xylene, ethylbenzene, styrene, and isopropylbenzene. With asthma rates increasing in the United States, parents – especially parents with a history of asthma – may wish to reconsider whether disposables are the better choice for their children. (13)
Bacteria and Diaper Rash
Disposable diaper companies spend a lot of advertising money trying to convince us that disposables keep babies dry. Unfortunately, their idea of “dry” does not translate into healthy baby bottoms. Because disposable diapers appear to be dry (even after babies urinate in them), parents tend to go longer between changes than parents who use cloth. But the urine is still there, along with the bacteria in the urine. The bacteria (and the ammonia that is released when urine breaks down) is trapped in the plastic of the disposable, right against babies’ skin. The result? More diaper rash. (14)
Amusingly, Procter & Gamble (manufacturers of Pampers and Huggies) released a study that established “the incidence of diaper rash increases from 7.1% to 61% with increased use of their diapers!” (15) Ouch. Not only do parents tend to change cloth diapers more often, keeping their children free of urine, bacteria, and ammonia, but cloth diapers are breathable, which keeps babies’ skin healthier.
Cloth Makes Healthy Communities
We cannot have a discussion of the health concerns surrounding disposable diapers without a nod to the environmental impact as well. Depending on what source you read, the average child will add anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 disposable diapers to our landfills. (16) The Clean Air Council calculates that in the United States alone, 570 disposable diapers are thrown in the trash every second.
570 disposable diapers per second, 49 million disposable diapers per day, 18 billion disposable diapers per year. And we have to pay $350 million each year to deal with all of that diaper trash.
Additionally, disposal is a misnomer; they’re still here. And they will still be in our landfills 300 years after we throw them in the trash can. (17)
So what does 18 billion diapers each year add to our environment? Besides approximately 100,000 tons of plastic and 800,000 tons of tree pulp, feces. (18) And along with feces, viruses. “There are an estimated 100 intestinal viruses living on the feces in landfills . . . .” (19) These viruses “(including live vaccines from routine childhood immunizations) can leak into the earth and pollute underground water supplies.” Our groundwater is not the only contamination to contend with, insects can spread airborne viruses that they pick up from feces including Hepatitus A, Norwalk and Rota Virus. (20) “So far, there has been no evidence of contamination.” (21) Perhaps no one has commissioned the right study.
Finally, the manufacture of disposable diapers can impact our health through the environment. “[W]aste water from the pulp, paper and plastics industries can contain solvents, sludge, heavy metals, unreacted polymers, dioxins and furans.” (22) This has direct ties with the chemicals discussed above. Not only are these substances hugging our children’s reproductive organs, they are leaking into our soil and drinking water.
Based on scientific studies of harm to babies and adults from the chemicals and other substances found in diapers, my husband and I decided that we wanted to minimize our son’s exposure to them. While we can’t keep Kieran in a plastic bubble, we can make small efforts to protect his health. Cloth diapering is one of those efforts.
Guest Blogger Bio: Dionna is a lawyer turned work at home mama to an amazing son. She and her hubby practice natural parenting (also known as attachment or responsive parenting) and try to live consciously. In other words, they believe in natural birth, exclusive/extended breastfeeding, delayed/selective vaccinations, cloth diapering, no circumcision, a family bed, healthy eating, and “going green” as much as possible.
On Code Name: Mama, Dionna shares information, resources, and her thoughts on natural parenting and life with a toddler. Please take a moment to subscribe to her RSS feed for free updates.