Since the first 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 years of a child’s life is spent in diapers, I think it’s important for parents to know exactly what diapers are made from and their effects on children’s health.
When it comes to choosing your child’s diapers, there are few options out there – one is a polyethylene-plastic-dyes-glues-sodium polyacrylate disposable diaper and the other is a cotton reusable diaper which you can get from a diaper service or purchase and wash yourself.
The most common occurrence associated with diaper use is diaper rash. However it is interesting to note that in 1955, before the mass production of disposable diapers, the occurrence of diaper rash was at 7%. In 1998 it was at 78%. Unfortunately diaper rash is not the only health concern resulting from use of disposable diapers which have also been linked to problems such as asthma, weakened immune systems and impaired hormonal systems. In 2010, Archives of Disease in Childhood published research showing that scrotal temperature is increased in boys wearing disposable diapers, and that prolonged use of disposable diapers will blunt or completely abolish the physiological testicular cooling mechanism important for normal spermatogenesis, meaning that the temperatures in the disposables diapers are high enough to stop the boy’s testicles from developing normally.
Some of the most toxic chemicals found in the disposables are Sodium Polyacrylate, TBT (Tribulytin) and Dioxin. Sodium Polyacrylate is a type of super absorbent polymer (SAP), which becomes a gel-like substance when wet. It absorbs urine and holds it in a “gel” next to a baby’s skin. 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. Dioxin is a toxic by-product of the paper-bleaching process. It is a carcinogenic chemical, listed by the EPA as the most toxic of all cancer-linked chemicals. It is banned in most countries, but not the U.S. Tributyl-tin (TBT) is a toxic pollutant known to cause hormonal problems in humans and animals.
Another huge issue rising around the disposables is that over 92% of all single-use diapers end up in a landfill where it is the third largest item. In 1988, 18 billion diapers were used in US alone. They are still sitting in our landfills, creating a health hazard. Note that it is illegal to dump human waste in landfills – a law that is not enforced when it comes to diapers. Leachate containing viruses from human feces leak and pollute underground water supplies and air-borne viruses carried by flies and other insects contribute to an unhealthy and unsanitary situation. To top this off, plastic and super absorbent gel in a diaper takes approximately 250 years to decompose. Long after we are dead, our future generations will still be dealing with the problems of their grandparents diapers.
Having read all that, we might still be inclined to use disposables because of the ease of purchase and use. A common misconception is that cotton reusable diapers are somehow more involved and complicated where in fact, quite the opposite is true. Diaper services are simple and very convenient. Every week the dirty diapers are picked up and a fresh week’s supply is delivered to your home. One doesn’t even need to go to the store.
Let’s have a look at the price difference between reusable cotton diapers and disposable diapers. In the first two years, the average baby will require between 5000 to 7000 changes. Over a three year period, the average cost is approximately $1800. The costs for diaper service for the same period of time is approximately $1380 (NY) and the cost of purchasing cloth diapers and washing them yourself is roughly $800.
Given that in 2005 alone, the global diaper market generated $22.2 billion, the mounting environmental and health challenges created by their products are of no concern to the manufacturers. The only way to influence and hopefully move closer to cleaning up this mess is for us to educate ourselves and stay informed about the products that we are using and buying. It is not wise to only think about our immediate future. We have to think globally. We have to stay conscious of what we do here and now.