First Steps: The Diaper Debate

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.
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.
1. 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.
2. Synthetic chemicals.
Parents are largely in the dark about the chemicals used to make the disposable diapers their children wear. Diaper manufacturers are not required to divulge what’s in their products and very little scientific literature exists on the chemicals diaper manufacturers use. Here are some of the most common concerns:

  • VOCs – One oft-cited study, conducted by Anderson Laboratories in 1999 and published in the Archives of Environmental Health, found that conventional 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 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. The authors suggested that disposable diapers may cause “asthma-like” reactions and urged more study into a possible link between diaper emissions and asthma. (Cloth diapers and one brand of disposables had low emissions – unfortunately, due to the nature of the study, brand names weren’t revealed.)

  • SAP – The main absorbent filler in disposable diapers, sodium polyacrylate (SAP), could cause respiratory, as well as skin, irritations in occupational settings where exposures are at much higher levels than occurs with diaper use. (Note that the gel used in disposable diapers today is not the same as that used in super absorbant tampons, linked with toxic shock syndrome, a number of years ago.) In fact, SAP has been rigorously tested and it has been concluded that it is completely safe and non-toxic. In fact, MBDC, which is the leading US-based design chemistry firm, has assessed SAP as GREEN, which is the safest assessment a chemical or material can receive. Safe for your baby, safe for the planet.
  • Dioxins – 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. According to a study by the US EPA, “exposure to dioxins from the diet is more than 30,000-2,200,000 times the exposure through diapers.” So, diapers aren’t a main exposure route, but if they’re bleached, they are creating dioxin pollution – which ends up in food – which ends up in us. (Read more below.)

Others? Without an ingredients list, products can vary. But, according to an article in the CBC News, “Diapers can also contain polyurethane, adhesives, inks used to create the cartoon images found on many disposable diapers, and lotions used to coat the diaper liner. These lotions often include petrolatum, essentially the same substance as Vaseline, which has the potential to be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), cancer-causing chemicals found in crude oil, according to the U.S. Environmental Working Group, an organization that devotes itself to educating consumers about health hazards posed by a variety of products. Other common diaper substances include lotions containing almond oil or Jojoba, which can also lead to skin reactions in allergic children. Many disposables also add fragrance to their diapers to mask fecal odors or chemical odors, which in many cases contain phthalates, the class of chemicals known to disrupt the endrocrine system. That’s the strong smell that diapers often give off when newly opened.”
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.

  • Disposal

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.
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. Yet, there are now hybrid disposable diapers like those made by gDiapers that are actually flushable which eliminates this problem.
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.

  • Pesticides

Since cloth diapers are made from cotton, pesticide use is a major pollution issue. Cotton crops use more pesticides than any other crop. (Note: Conventionally grown cotton fabric does NOT have pesticide residues. Learn more.)

  • Wastewater

Conventional diaper production (both cotton and disposable) causes the release of dioxin, a potent carcinogen and hormone disruptor, in wastewater 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, wastewater produced by the manufacture of wood pulp, paper and plastics in disposables can contain solvents, sludge and heavy metals.
Diapering in the 21st Century
The diaper debate is sure to rage on, but consider one final factor: cost. Grist writer Anna Fahey says, “[r]eusable diapers (cloth or otherwise) are easier on the wallet. During the 2.5 years a child might be using diapers, reusables would cost between $400 and $1,700 for diapers, laundry supplies, water, and electricity. Over the same period, disposables would set you back $2,500 or so. If you pass the cloth diapers along to another child, the cost savings of reusables is even greater. A diaper service costs about the same as or a little less than disposables. (Everything you could possibly want to know about diaper costs is laid out here.)”
And, thank your lucky stars for ample choices. Beyond simply cloth vs. disposable, today’s parents have a slew of organically grown, unbleached cotton products in addition to hemp and bamboo alternatives. There’s also an ever-expanding market of eco-friendly disposable diapers including Tushies, Seventh Generation, Nature Boy and Girl, and Mother Nature.. They vary considerably, so do some homework before you choose. And, one last option to consider which allows you to avoid every single issue listed above: elimination communication – diaper-free living!
Did we miss anything? Where do you fall in the diaper debate?