The Health Impact of Disposable Diapers

by Charise Rohm Nulsen

After we got through the newborn stage of seemingly constant diaper changes, I began to research cloth diapering as an option for Baby. Now that we do cloth diaper, I wish we had started when Baby was born. Not only do I now realize how unbelievably easy it is, but I am also thankful we made the switch due to the potential health impacts of disposable diapers on babies. I have to admit that I was very unaware of the health risks of disposable diapers for the first few months of Baby’s life; I really only started considering cloth diapering because of wanting to make a better choice for the environment. Here is some of the information I found that made the decision to switch from disposable to cloth very easy:

1. Dioxin: Diapers are bleached white with chlorine, and dioxin is a byproduct of chlorine bleaching. Dioxin is also carcinogenic. Several years ago, the FDA cracked down on dioxin use in tampons, but it is not yet regulated in disposable diapers. Just like tampons, diapers come into contact with the genital region, which lead to claims of dioxin leading to reproductive area cancers. Disposable diapers also thereby create dioxin pollution, which ends up in our food and ultimately ends up in our bodies.

2. VOCs or volatile organic compounds: These toxins are released by disposable diapers, and these chemicals have been proven to have toxic health effects with long term exposure or high level exposure.

3. Fragrance: Disposable diapers often include fragrance to cover up the smell of urine and fecal matter. Fragrance – as an ingredient in anything you use – contains phthalates, which are chemicals proven to be endocrine system disrupters.

4. Tributyl-tin (TBT): Disposable diapers contain this toxic pollutant known to cause hormonal problems in humans and animals.

5. SAP or sodium polyacrylate: Disposable diapers contain this super absorbent polymer, which becomes a gel-like substance when wet. You may have noticed small gel-like balls in your child’s diaper area after wearing a diaper all night long. This is SAP. A similar substance had been used in super-absorbency tampons until the early 1980s when it was revealed that the material increased the risk of toxic shock syndrome by increasing absorbency and improving the environment for the growth of toxin-producing bacteria.

6. Neurotoxins and undisclosed ingredients: Per a CBC news article:

There is an often-cited study by Andersen Laboratories in 1999, published in the Archives of Environmental Health. In the study conducted on mice, scientists found that “diaper emissions were found to include several chemicals with documented respiratory toxicity,” according to lead author Rosalind Anderson, a physiologist. She found that the mice suffered asthma-like symptoms when exposed to a variety of diaper brands.

It was noted that xylene and ethyl benzene were emitted by the diapers, chemicals that are suspected endocrine, neurological and respiratory toxins; along with styrene, a chemical linked to cancer and isopropylene, a neurotoxin.
The article goes on to explain that diaper manufactures are not obligated to disclose their ingredients, even though they share many of the same ingredients that cosmetics and personal care companies are required to disclose.

I’m sure the thought of these toxins wrapped around such a sensitive region of your perfect baby bundle is disconcerting to you. As much as I care about the environment, the presence of these toxins in constant contact with my little one was the number one reason I switched to cloth diapering. As parents we work so hard to keep our children healthy. Unfortunately, we cannot depend on others to protect our children. As aware and educated parents, we need to be the front lines for the defense of our babies’ health.

Baby wears cloth diaper and baby legs.

One more good reason to cloth diaper: You just can't beat how cute your little one looks in them!

For more information about the health impact of disposable diapers, please visit Healthy Child, Healthy World.

If you made the switch from disposable diapers to cloth, what was your number one reason for doing so? If you haven’t tried cloth, what holds you back?

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