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Why Disposable Diapers are Dirty and Dangerous

Why Disposable Diapers are Dirty and Dangerous

Babies do a lot of pooping. In fact, the average baby goes through 6-8 diapers a day. Unless you practice elimination communication, your baby will use between 6,500–10,000 diapers before potty training around 30 months old. If you use disposables and disposable wipes, this costs about $75–$100 a month retail—at least $3,000 per child!

According to a 2010 study, one-third of U.S. mothers are cutting back on basic necessities (such as food, utilities, and childcare) to buy diapers for their children. But as much as disposable diapers cost individual families, they cost us even more as a nation and as a planet.

Consider these alarming facts you may not know about disposable diapers:

Disposable Nation

Approximately 90-95% of American babies use 27.4 billion single-use, plastic diapers every year. This generates 7.6 billion pounds of garbage each year—enough waste to fill Yankee Stadium 15 times over, or stretch to the moon and back 9 times. Every year.

Disposable diapers are the 3rd largest consumer item in landfills, and represent 30% of non-biodegradable waste. The only other items that outnumber the amount of disposables in landfills are newspapers and beverage and food containers.

Even though it may seem as if an individual child doesn’t contribute much to those numbers, each baby wearing disposable diapers creates about 2000 pounds of garbage over the course of two years.

(Yeah, that’s literally a ton of toxic waste. Could you imagine having to bury it in your yard?)

It takes hundreds of years for disposable diapers to decompose when exposed to sunlight and air. Since diapers are dumped into landfills, covered and not exposed to sun or air at all, nobody knows how many hundreds—or even thousands—of years they could be around.

Without sun and air, even so-called “eco-friendly” diapers labeled biodegradable do NOT biodegrade in landfills, and cause just as much of a problem as regular diapers.

Yet sadly, in the five minutes it will take you to read this article, another 200,000 throwaway diapers will enter landfills in the U.S. where they will sit for at least 500 years before decomposing.

In other words, if Christopher Columbus had worn Pampers, his poop would still be intact in some landfill today.

If the costs associated with needlessly landfilling diapers weren’t enough, consider that our landfills contain 5 million tons of untreated human waste—a breeding ground for diseases that could potentially contaminate our groundwater. The EPA notes that “…a significant portion of the disposable diaper waste dumped in American’s landfills every year is actually biodegradable human waste preserved forever.”

Ew.

When you toss a disposable into the trash can, you are adding to the 84 million pounds of raw fecal matter going into the environment every year. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and The American Public Health Association advise parents that fecal matter and urine should NOT be disposed of in the regular trash, because it contaminates the ground water and spreads disease.

In fact, printed on the side of every disposable diaper package are instructions for rinsing the diaper and flushing the fecal material down the toilet before putting it into the trash!

Have you EVER seen anyone rinse out a disposable, much less dump out the poop into the toilet?

Me neither.

Disposables Help Increase Gas Prices

Image credit: Modern Natural Baby

We, as a nation, pay through the nose for disposable diapers throughout their life-cycle.

Even factoring in the water and energy used to launder cloth diapers, in the full-cost accounting, from farm to factory to storefront, compared to cloth diapers, disposables:

  • create 2.3 times more water waste,
  • use 3.5 times more energy,
  • use 8.3 times more non-renewable raw materials (like oil and minerals),
  • use 90 times more renewable raw materials (like tree pulp and cotton),
  • and use 4 to 30 times as much land for growing or mining raw materials.

Yikes!

Let’s break it down further…

Even factoring in the water and energy used to launder cloth diapers, in the full-cost accounting, compared to cloth diapers, disposables waste 2.3 times more water, and use 3.5 times more energy.
A disposable diaper is practically dripping in oil. Oil is the raw material for the polyethylene plastic in disposables and it takes about 1 cup of crude oil just to make the plastic for 1 disposable diaper. Taking that a bit further, assuming you use at least 6,500 diapers, this means that it takes about 1,625 quarts of oil to diaper your baby for 30 months—not including the oil involved in the diapers’ manufacture and delivery.

Yes, that’s right: It takes more oil to keep your baby dry for 2-1/2 years than it does to lubricate all the cars you will ever own in your lifetime.

For the nation, this means that over 250,000 trees are destroyed and over 3.4 billion gallons of oil are used every single year to manufacture disposable diapers in the United States. For that amount of oil, we could have powered over 5,222,000 cars in the same time period.

Who knew?

The importance of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels through our diaper choices cannot be overestimated. Using up what little affordable oil we have left on this planet to improperly manage baby poop is possibly the stupidest use of oil we could think of, besides the disposable water bottle.

Such recklessly wasteful use of oil threatens not only our environmental security, but also our economic and homeland security, too. As we waste all the easy, cheap-to-produce oil we have left on unnecessary conveniences like disposable diapers and water bottles, we will increasingly have to rely on risky, costly-to-produce oil from deep in the ocean, the pristine Arctic, the Tarsands, and the Mideast and Venezuela, and suffer the price hikes, environmental disasters, and scary, scarcity politics that go with that.

(War again, anyone?)

Would you knowingly send our young people to war for the resources to continue to cover our children’s bottoms in sweaty, chemical-laden plastic?

Me neither.

Poison Pampers

If the toxic waste and the misuse of oil weren’t bad enough, disposable diapers are toxic to your baby too.

Baby’s poorly developed outer skin layer absorbs about 50 different chemicals if you use disposable diapers, wipes and standard baby products. This can be greatly reduced by using cloth diapers and natural baby products.

SPA

One of the dangers of disposable diapers is that they all contain something called Sodium Polyacrylate. Even the “eco-friendly” diapers contain this chemical, too. This is the chemical added to the inner pad of a disposable that makes it super-absorbent.

When the powder gets wet, it turns into a gel that:

  • Can absorb up to 100 times its weight in water.
  • Can stick to baby’s genitals, causing allergic reactions.
  • Can cause severe skin irritation, oozing blood from perineum and scrotal tissues, fever, vomiting and staph infections in babies.
  • Was banned from tampons in 1985 because of its link to Toxic Shock Syndrome.
  • When injected into rats, has caused hemorrhage, cardiovascular failure and death.
  • Has killed children after ingesting as little as 5 grams of it.

These are the small, shiny, gelatinous crystals that you will sometimes find in your baby’s private parts during diaper changing.

Yes, you should be alarmed.

Dioxin

If Christopher Columbus had worn Pampers, his poop would still be intact in some landfill today.
Most disposable diapers also contain Dioxin. This is a chemical by-product of the paper-bleaching process used in the manufacturing of most diapers. Dioxin is carcinogenic. In fact, the EPA lists it as the most toxic of all cancer-linked chemicals.

In very small quantities (parts per trillion) it causes birth defects, skin disease, liver disease, immune system suppression & genetic damage in lab animals. Dioxin is banned in most countries, but not the United States.

A 2002 study that tested four brands of diapers and four brands of tampons found dioxins in all samples, although in much lower concentrations than the amount of dioxin exposure from one’s diet.

While some believe that the tiny size of dioxin exposure from diapers means it’s nothing to worry about, others feel that because dioxin is highly carcinogenic in even the tiniest amounts (parts per trillion), it’s worth it to reduce dioxin exposure even by that little bit.

Phthalates

And if dioxin weren’t bad enough, the plastic in all disposable diapers contains phthalates. These are the plastic softeners that were recently banned from children’s teething rings and other toys because of toxicity. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors, meaning they mimic human hormones and send false signals to the body.

According to Pediatrics,

Children are uniquely vulnerable to phthalate exposures given their hand-to-mouth behaviors, floor play, and developing nervous and reproductive systems.”

Yikes!

Heavy Metals

Some disposable diapers contain Tributyl Tin (TBT) and other heavy metals. Considered a highly toxic environmental pollutant, TBT spreads through the skin and has a hormone-like effect in the tiniest concentrations. TBT harms the immune system and impairs the hormonal system, and it is speculated that it could cause sterility in boys.

In 2005, Pediatrics found that the dyes used on diapers can contain heavy metals—and heavy metals are not what you want near your baby’s skin.

Other Toxic Nasties

Even worse, in 1999, a study showed that childhood respiratory problems, including asthma, might be linked to inhaling the mixture of chemicals emitted from disposable diapers. The study identified these chemicals in emissions from two brands of disposable diapers (specific brands tested were not disclosed):

Toluene is a known central nervous system depressant. Ethylbenzene is a carcinogen. Dipentene is a skin irritant. Styrene is a respiratory irritant. Know that you know, do you really want your precious one (or yourself) to be inhaling and touching all of these known toxins?

The list of toxic nasties in disposable diapers presents a series of risks you might not be willing to take with your child. For your baby’s sake, please consider quitting the plastic disposables right away.

Disposables Cause Rashes

Even if sodium polyacrylate was completely safe (and there is some debate about this), the super-absorbent qualities of disposable diapers are not really the blessing they seem to be. Super-absorbent disposables can do three things:

  • Facilitate less diaper changing from parents, which leads to rashes because of exposure to the super-absorbent chemicals, bacteria, and ammonia from accumulated urine in the diaper.
  • Reduce air circulation and pull natural moisture (not just urine) our of your baby’s skin—which can cause irritation.
  • Raise the temperature of a baby boy’s scrotum far above body temperature, to the point that it can stop his testicles from developing normally, according to a study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Widespread diaper rash is a relatively new phenomenon that surfaced in tandem with the widespread use of disposable diapers, and is now found in over half of all U.S. babies.

While diaper rashes can be caused by a variety of problems (food allergies, yeast, etc.), the majority of these rashes come from allergies to diaper and wipe chemicals, lack of air, higher temperatures (because plastic retains body heat), and being changed less often because babies feel dry when they are actually wet.

Certain dyes used to add color to disposable diapers have been shown to cause allergic reactions resulting in rashes. Repeated exposure to the dye can cause a long-term allergy.

Each baby wearing disposable diapers creates about 2000 pounds of garbage over the course of two years. That’s literally a ton of toxic waste.”
One study in Pediatrics that looked at several babies who suffered from rashes found that the rashes only occurred in places where the skin was in direct contact with the dyed part of the diaper. Researchers believe that it is the continued exposure to the dyes that causes a sensitization, or allergic reaction, in babies.

The study also found the following chemicals in disposable diapers to be associated with allergic contact dermatitis (skin rash):

  • Mercaptobenzothiazole (rubber chemical)
  • P-tert-butyl-phenol-formaldehyde resin (glue)
  • Cyclohexylthiophthalimide (found in rubber)

Since prolonged exposure to a hot, dirty, chemical-laden diaper is the most common cause of diaper rashes, super-absorbent diapers may actually encourage parents to leave them on longer, causing these rashes.

Think about it. How many times have you stuck your finger into the leg of your baby’s bulging disposable diaper, and decided it was dry enough to stay on for another hour? (Tell the truth now, we’ve all done it. 😉

With a cloth diaper, when it is wet, it feels wet inside, and must be changed, because babies really dislike the feeling of eliminating on themselves. (Who does?) It is for this same reason that using cloth diapers facilitates earlier potty learning.

Frequent changing, in addition to the cool, breathable fabric of cloth diapers, significantly reduces diaper rashes. And with no toxic chemicals, cloth diapers can’t cause allergic dermatitis either. In fact, my daughter never had a diaper rash again after we switched from so-called “green” disposables to cloth.

Making the Switch to Cloth Diapers

Reusable cloth diapers offer a great solution to all the cost, health and environmental problems of disposables, but their benefits have been hidden by the billions of advertising dollars spent by Proctor & Gamble, et. al. over the last 50 years to misinform parents like us and gain a stranglehold on the market.

But even the best PR firm can’t beat the rising tide of families who demand better for their babies and the planet!

Today’s cloth diapers are as effective as any disposable, and they come in lots of styles, sizes and super-cute colors and prints! With velcro, snaps, fleece, and soft, PUL nylon covers, the old diaper pins and sweaty, plastic pants are now a relic of the past.

Have you ever seen diapers so cute?!?!

The new cloth diaper systems do not require a stinky diaper pail, and clean up easily in both regular and high-efficiency washing machines, using less water than you would need to flush the toilet each time your baby went to the bathroom.

You can learn how to start using cloth diapers and check out all the various cloth diaper systems at Nicki’s Diapers—my favorite online, mom-owned cloth diaper business. Then see how parents rate various cloth diaper brands and systems, plus get additional help and support at the Diaper Pin.

A good cloth diapering system consisting of at least 24-36 cloth diapers will usually cost you between $200-500 dollars up front retail, but you will not need to continue to buy them, and you can save them for use with future children. That’s huge savings over disposables!

Cloth diapers in good condition also have great resale value on e-Bay and other “mommy resource” sites like Cloth Diaper Clearance or Diaper Swappers, and you can often find great deals or unload your extras through these channels.

If you are good at sewing, there are many patterns out there for making your own cloth diapers, wipes and wetbags, which would probably be the cheapest option of all, if not free!

For my daughter, we used All-in-One cloth diapers, which behave the most like a disposable in that they are simple to change. (See photo above.) Although they cost more than other cloth diaper systems, I didn’t want extended family members or caregivers to feel intimidated by a two or three-step diaper.

All-in-ones also come in One-Size as well, so you can typically use the diaper from newborn through toddler age.

You might also need one or two waterproof diaper bags to hold dirty diapers for the laundry, a wetbag for travel, and a diaper sprayer that attaches to your toilet. The diaper sprayer is a real joy, because you use it to quickly and easily rinse the dirty diaper right into the toilet, completely eliminating the need to “dunk” the diapers or use a water-filled diaper pail. As an added bonus, it can help you clean the toilet and bathroom too.

Lastly, you can also get flannel cloth wipes, and keep them folded neatly inside a recycled wipes box from the store. Soak the wipes in a homemade wipe solution made with spring water blended with a dash of castile soap and lavender and tea tree essential oils.

Voila! Non-toxic, low-cost, small footprint diapering!

Diaper-Free Babies?!?!

If you thought using cloth diapers was natural, economical and environmentally friendly, imagine this prospect: not using any diapers at all!

While the idea of “natural infant hygiene” may seem radical or even impossible, throughout most of human existence, parents have kept their babies clean, dry and happy without using diapers. And today, in many cultures around the world, mothers continue to practice some form of elimination communication (EC), where they learn their babies’ cues for needing to eliminate— just as they would learn their cues for hunger or sleepiness—and hold them over a potty when they need to go.

Many progressive parents in the U.S. also practice EC, avoiding the need for diapers altogether, and enjoying potty-trained children by the age of one! We did it for the first few months of Babyzilla’s life and it was really easy, until we moved cross country and needed to switch to cloth.

Learn more about Elimination Communication and Diaper-Free Babies here.

You Can Make a Difference

If you currently use cloth diapers, you can empower other parents to use cloth diapers too. How? Here are some ideas from the Real Diaper Association for doing cloth diaper outreach in your community.

  • Share this article widely. 😉
  • Wear a cloth diaper advocacy pin (or sport other cloth diaper advocacy gear) as you go about your day.
  • Post on Facebook or Tweet, inviting friends to ask you about cloth diapers.
  • Blog or write about cloth diapering.
  • Host a Cloth Diaper 101 class with a local mom’s group, daycare center, hospital, or birth center.
  • Write to a local TV station or newspaper asking them to feature cloth diapers.

Together we can help more parents make better-informed choices about diapering their little ones. In the infamous words of Margaret Mead:

“Never underestimate the power of a few committed people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Sources and More Information:

  • Baby Care Products: Possible Sources of Infant Phthalate Exposure, Pediatrics, Vol. 121 No. 2 February 1, 2008
  • Toxins in Huggies and Pampers Aren’t What You Want to Put Near Baby’s Skin, Alternet, February 18, 2014.
  • Alberta, Lauren, Susan M. Sweeney, and Karen Wiss. “Diaper Dye Dermatitis.” Pediatrics 116 (2005): 450-52.
  • Anderson RC, Anderson JH. “Acute respiratory effects of diaper emissions.” Arch Environ Health. 1999 Sep-Oct;54(5):353-8.
  • Davis, James A., James J. Leyden, Gary L. Grove, and William J. Raynor. “Comparison of Disposable Diapers with Fluff Absorbent and Fluff Plus Absorbent Polymers: Effects on Skin Hydration, Skin PH, and Diaper Dermatitis.” Pediatric Dermatology 6.2 (2008): 102-08.
  • DeVito, Michael J., and Arnold Schecter. “Exposure Assessment to Dioxins from the Use of Tampons and Diapers.” Environmental Health Perspectives 110.1 (2002): 23-28.
  • H.R.Y. Prasad, Pushplata Srivastava, and Kaushal K. Verma. “Diapers and skin care: Merits and Demerits.” Indian Journal of Pediatrics 73.10 (2004): 907-908.
  • Sutton, Marianne B., Michael Weitzman, and Jonathan Howland. “Baby Bottoms and Environmental Conundrums: Disposable Diapers and the Pediatrician.” Pediatrics 1991 85.2 (1991): 386-388.
  • Toxipedia – Diapers
  • “Why Choose Cloth Diapers,” Real Diaper Association.
  • “Your Choice Does Make a Difference,” Born to Love.
  • McDiarmid, Catherine, “What’s Wrong with ‘Disposable’ Single-Use Diapers?,” Born to Love.
  • McConnell, Jane. “The Joy of Cloth Diapers.”
  • Flug, Rachael, “Top Ten Environmental Reasons For Choosing Cotton Diapers.
  • The Canadian Cloth Diaper Association, “The Facts: Cloth Versus ‘Disposable’ Diapers.”
  • Michaels, Patricia A., About Guide
  • Iowa Sate University – University Extension, “The Diaper Dilemma.”
  • Schiff, Sherry, “The Diaper Dilemma, Waterloo Centre For Groundwater Research.
  • McConnell, Jane, “The Diaper Debate: Ten Years Later”
  • Reilly, Lee, “The diaper debate: cloth vs. paper”, Vegetarian Times, March, 1997.
  • New Tests Confirm TBT Poison in Procter & Gamble’s Pampers®: Greenpeace Demands World-Wide Ban of Organotins in All Products,” 15 May 2000,
  • Allison, Cathy. “Disposable Diapers: Potential Health Hazards.,” referring to: Hicks, R et al. “Characterization of toxicity involving hemorrhage and cardiovascular failure, caused by parenteral administration of a soluble polyacrylate in the rat,” Journal of Applied Toxicology 1989 June; 9(3): 191-8.
  • Link, Ann. Disposable nappies: a case study in waste prevention. April 2003. Women’s Environmental Network.
  • Lehrburger, Carl. 1988. Diapers in the Waste Stream: A review of waste management and public policy issues. 1988. Sheffield, MA: self-published.
  • Lehrburger, C., J. Mullen and C.V. Jones. 1991. Diapers: Environmental Impacts and Lifecycle Analysis. Philadelphia, PA: Report to The National Association of Diaper Services (NADS).
  • Allsopp, Michelle. Achieving Zero Dioxin: An emergency strategy for dioxin elimination. September 1994. Greenpeace.
  • Armstrong, Liz and Adrienne Scott Whitewash: Exposing the Health and Environmental Dangers of Women’s Sanitary Products and Disposable Diapers, What You Can Do About It. 1993. HarperCollins.
  • C-J Partsch, M Aukamp, W G Sippell Scrotal temperature is increased in disposable plastic lined nappies. Division of Paediatric Endocrinology, Department of Paediatrics, Christian-Albrechts- University of Kiel, Schwanenweg 20, D-24105 Kiel, Germany. Arch Dis Child 2000;83:364-368.
  • Swasy, Alecia, SOAP OPERA; The Inside Story of Procter & Gamble.

Store window photo credit goes to Emily http://www.modernnaturalbaby.com
https://www.facebook.com/ModernNaturalBaby

About the author

Dawn Gifford

Dawn is the creator of Small Footprint Family, and the author of the critically acclaimed Sustainability Starts at Home - How to Save Money While Saving the Planet. After a 20-year career in green building and environmental sustainability, chronic illness forced her to shift her expertise and passion from the public sphere to home and hearth. Get the whole story behind SFF here.

135 Comments

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  • So, shaming mothers pretty much never works. Yeah, you lay out the facts pretty well, but to be honest, after months of cloth and Thrush (which our natural doctor advised us to switch to disposable to help get rid of the Thrush on our son’s nether regions) and then what? Lots of diaper rash we switched to Environmental Friendly Disposables like Seventh Generation and Earth’s Best. Guess what? Our son hardly has diaper rash–EVER! I know that even Earth Friendly Disposables aren’t that much better for the environment, but from a chemical and resource use standpoint, they are a better alternative to your regular disposable diaper (you could give moms some credit for that). Having two boys in 13 months also makes a difference. You are not taking in to account folks with multiple babies, a job or two, and a house hold to maintain–let alone the single mom. I am hearing you say that cloth diapering is easy. Say that to a mom with two babies who both poop 2-3 times a day. Do you really want to go there? My husband used to be a Scientist and I used to teach ecology programs; we both care about the environment a great deal, but we also care about our sanity and have limited time. We will make it up to the planet in some way, but for now, it’s okay that we are alright with paying extra for the best alternative to cloth diapering that we can find. Compassion and Understanding go a long, long way. I find neither in this post. Good luck converting those in the disposable world.

    • Sorry you feel shamed, but no where do I state that someone is a bad person for making the choices they make. In fact, I stuck very strictly to the facts and the national implications of those facts.

      Mothers seem to choose to feel shamed by anyone these days who speaks to doing something that seems healthier or greener, even if all the other person did was speak to their own experience. Either be confident in your choices or make new choices. Either way, you will have chosen to give up shame (and the unnecessary defensiveness that goes with it.)

      But there are good choices for the planet and bad ones. And anything that goes in the landfill when there is an alternative is not the best choice at all.

      This post is mostly for all the folks who have no idea what is wrong with regular disposables, or who say–erroneously–that cloth uses so much water that it works out even with disposables. (It doesn’t.) For everyone else, I am mostly preaching to the choir.

      As a single mom working two jobs, with both myself and a daughter having serious chronic health problems that included lots of messy, frequent “poop issues,” (including yeast), I found cloth diapers to be the best and most frugal choice for us. I occasionally used “greener” disposables when we were out, but eventually couldn’t even use those in good conscience.

      Knowing what I know about disposables and about the dire state of our environment, I just couldn’t trade short term convenience for a world my daughter might not be able to live well on. That was my choice at the time, and sometimes it was challenging or inconvenient to make that choice, but I feel confident about it.

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