Diapers and the Environment
If you didn't need more incentive to potty train your child, take the time to read this article by Pamela Lundquist
. It discusses the (scary) environmental consequences of diaper usage.
Children's Health Environmental Coalitionhttp://www.checnet.org/healtheHouse/education/articles-detail.asp?Main_ID=554
First Steps: The Diaper Debate
by Pamela Lundquist
Children’s Health Environmental Coalition
From birth to toilet training, a baby goes through an average of 8000 diaper changes. This sheer volume of diapers makes one thing clear: Your choice of diaper – cloth or disposable – has a tremendous impact on the welfare of your baby and the planet.
Naturally, many parents wonder whether disposable are truly healthy. Growing concern about the environment led many to conclude that disposables wasted resources and left a legacy of non-biodegradable plastic in our landfills. Today, many parents still wrestle with the decision.
To help you decide what’s best for your family, here are some things you should know.
Diapers and Health
Since babies have diapers touching delicate areas 24 hours a day, it’s no surprise that health concerns have arisen.
First, there’s the issue of diaper rash. Cloth diapers tell kids and parents when they’re wet, while disposables may feel dry because the absorbent materials pull wetness into the middle of the diaper. This often means fewer diaper changes and possibly increased diaper rash. Therefore, regardless of the type of diaper used, it is important to change them frequently, every 2-3 hours, even if they feel dry.
Second, with all the synthetic materials in disposables, could a baby be exposed to harmful chemicals?
One study, conducted by Anderson Laboratories in 1999 and published in the Archives of Environmental Health, found that disposable diapers do release chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs
), including toluene, ethylbenzene
, xylene and dipentene
. All of these VOCs
have been shown to have toxic health effects, such as cancer and brain damage, with long-term or high level exposure.
The researchers also discovered that mice exposed to the chemicals emitted by disposable diapers were more likely to experience irritated airways than mice exposed to emissions from cloth diapers. These effects were increased during repeat exposures. The authors suggested that disposable diapers may cause "asthma-like" reactions and urged more study into a possible link between diaper emissions and asthma.
Babies breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults do, and children are generally more susceptible to the toxic effects of air pollutants. The good news is that cloth diapers and one brand of disposables had low emissions. (Unfortunately, due to the nature of the study, brand names weren
The main absorbent filler in disposable diapers, sodium polyacrylate
, could cause respiratory, as well as skin, irritations in occupational settings where exposures are at higher levels than occurs with diaper use. However, some studies indicate that super absorbent gels are not associated with skin irritations. Note that the gel used in disposable diapers today is not the same as that used in super absorbent tampons, linked with toxic shock syndrome, a number of years ago.
Another study, conducted in Germany, looked at a small group of baby boys and found that those wearing disposable diapers had higher scrotal temperatures. However, it is not clear whether this had any effects on fertility. Another study found that scrotal temperatures in boys wearing cloth diapers with a protective cover were the same as those for boys wearing disposables. Cloth diapers worn alone were linked with the lowest temperatures.
Most diapers, whether or not disposable, are bleached white with chlorine. As a result, there have been claims that diapers may contain trace amounts of dioxin, a highly carcinogenic byproduct of chlorine bleaching. Since the diapers come into contact with the genitals, some parents worry about potential reproductive cancers. Currently, there is no evidence that this is the case. See the next section for more on dioxin and diapers.
Finally, using diaper pins is another concern for new parents. Luckily, Velcro® fasteners or snaps now replace pins on most diaper covers these days.
Diapers and Our Natural Resources
Many natural resources must be used to produce diapers. Disposable diapers use 1.3 million tons of wood pulp — a quarter-million trees — each year, along with plastics, which are made from petroleum resources. Both types of diapers also consume energy and water in their manufacturer and, in the case of cotton diapers, cleaning.
It has been argued — primarily by the makers of disposable diapers — that the production and cleaning of cloth diapers requires more energy and water and generates more water pollution than the production of disposables.
Mothering magazine estimates that washing cloth diapers at home uses the same amount of water as flushing the toilet five to six times a day — which is what your child will be doing once she’s potty trained. Diaper services wash in high volume, which is more energy- and water-efficient.
Use of both disposable and cloth diapers can cause harm to the environment, but in different ways.
The basic problem with disposable diapers is disposal. Disposable diapers are made of paper, plastic and the absorptive gel, sodium polyacrylate
. These materials don’t biodegrade well, which means disposable diapers, like diamonds, are forever. Most go straight into landfills at the rate of 3.3 million tons —a whopping 18 billion diapers! — per year, according to EPA estimates. However, experts in waste management say that most things fail to biodegrade — even natural materials — in the environment of a landfill because of the lack of oxygen and water.
Beware of manufacturers who claim their disposable diapers are "biodegradable". Technically, they’re not. To make this claim, manufacturers add cornstarch to the plastic. This helps the plastic break apart in little pieces. But the plastic doesn
’t convert into environmentally benign substances. To add insult to injury, cornstarch makes the plastic impossible to recycle. There is a European brand of diapers, called Nature Boy and Girl, that is compostable
; however, in the U.S., commercial composting facilities for household waste are virtually non-existent.
Proper use of disposables includes dumping fecal matter into the toilet before putting the soiled diaper in the trash. In practice, however, most parents don’t take that extra step. The smell and bacteria can create public health hazards. Fecal matter also carries live viruses that could potentially be released into the environment through leaking landfills.
The biggest environmental plus for cloth diapers is that they can be reused between 100 to 150 times. This also lowers their environmental impact per diaper, as compared to disposables.
Since cloth diapers are made from cotton, pesticide use is a major pollution issue. Cotton crops use more pesticides than any other crop.
A second cotton concern is that, more and more, farmers are planting genetically engineered varieties of cotton. While this has little impact on us or babies directly, there is very little long-term research on the environmental impacts of genetic modification of farm crops. These altered plants may affect the ecosystem in a variety of ways. See Food, Farms and Genetic Engineering
for more information.Dirty Wash Water
Many believe that the waste water
from washing cloth diapers can cause environmental harm. But, these days, diaper services generally use biodegradable detergents and, otherwise, diaper wash water is benign.
Diaper production, regardless of type, causes the release of dioxin, a potent carcinogen and hormone disruptor, in waste water
due to chlorine bleaching of cotton and wood pulp. Dioxin tends to persist for many years and can cause reproductive effects in wildlife. It also accumulates in animal and human tissue. Humans are exposed to dioxin through food that has been contaminated through environmental pollution.
Along with dioxin, waste water
produced by the manufacture of wood pulp, paper and plastics in disposables can contain solvents, sludge and heavy metals.
Diapering in the 21st Century
With about 90 percent of American households using disposables for convenience, there has been a tremendous decline in the number of diaper services. The National Association of Diaper Services
lists at least one diaper service company in 42 states.
But, given the facts, the right cloth diapers may make the most health and environmental sense. Another incentive is cost, which tends to be less for cloth ($35 per month vs. $50 per month for disposables), even with all the washing. In general, organically grown, unbleached cotton products offer the healthiest, environmentally friendly option. If busy lives demand disposables, you can use disposable diaper liners, which mean that you won't have to soak the diapers before washing. Diaper liners are usually available where cloth diapers are sold. You can also turn to eco
-friendly disposable diapers. Several brands, including Tushies
, Seventh Generation, Nature Boy and Girl, and Mother Nature, are out on the market today. They vary considerably, so do some homework before you choose.
In the future, there may be a way to reduce the impact of disposable diapers further — by recycling them. A six-month pilot program in Santa Clarita, California, showed that diaper recycling can work. Parents brought their diapers to the curb in a separate can. The company that processed the diapers, Knowaste LLC
, washed them and separated their components. Recovered wood pulp and plastic can be made into roof tiles, decking, oil filters and insoles.
: archive of diapering articles and a list of resourcesNational Association of Diaper Services
: list of diapering services by state
The Non-Toxic Times, Seventh Generation's newsletter, explains the company's rationale for making disposable diapers with sodium polyacrylate
in their June
See AlsoHow To Set Up a Cloth Diapering System
Look for safer product alternatives in CHEC's Safer Products Store
Original Date - 3/19/03
Last Updated - 01/12/05© 2001-2002 CHEC
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