Disposable diapers: Are they dangerous?

Disposable baby diapers – and the chemicals they contain — are under scrutiny after recent lawsuits.

There's a lack of data about the chemicals found in diapers

Diaper manufacturers are not obligated by law to disclose the component parts of their diapers. ((iStock))
New Pampers diapers, which include Cruisers and Swaddlers, have been the subject of the two U.S. lawsuits. Specifically, the product's Dry Max Technology has been blamed for serious diaper rashes, likened by some parents on Facebook to chemical burns. The lawsuits, filed in mid-May 2010, follow the announcements of Health Canada and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission that they're investigating parents' claims.

A Facebook page has been set up asking Procter and Gamble, the company that makes Pampers, to bring back the older versions of its diapers. The group has more than 9,800 members, a number that's growing daily.

Procter and Gamble denies Dry Max causes chemical burns.

"Intensive safety assessments, clinical testing, and consumer testing before, during, and after the launch shows that Pampers Dry Max is safe and does not cause skin conditions," the company said in a press release after the lawsuits were made public.

"Further review by pediatricians, pediatric dermatologists, and children's public health risk experts confirm these findings. The claims made in this lawsuit are completely false."

Regardless of the legal outcome, the bad Pampers press has shed light on the fact that parents are largely in the dark about the chemicals found in the disposable diapers their children wear. There's little data available.

Proprietary information

The diaper business is a self-regulating industry, meaning it's up to the diaper companies to ensure they're compliant with safety regulations in Canada.

"It is the responsibility of companies to ensure that the consumer products they import, sell or advertise in Canada meet all requirements of the Hazardous Products Act and its regulations, as well as any other applicable legislation," Christelle Legault, a media relations officer with Health Canada, told CBC News. "Therefore, it is the responsibility of industry to test their products and take other measures as appropriate to ensure that they meet Canadian health and safety requirements."

As a result, diaper manufacturers are not obligated by law to disclose the component parts of their diapers — via documents such as material safety data sheets — even though in many cases they share the same ingredients as cosmetics and personal-care products, which do list their ingredients.

That's why the average pack of diapers might offer up "petrolatum" as its only ingredient, rather than providing a specific list, the kind found on shampoo, moisturizing lotion and lipstick.

Research on the issue is scant. Apart from the countless websites set up by eco-conscious groups or purveyors of organic diapers, very little scientific literature exists on the chemicals diaper manufacturers use.

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.

Diapers contain a variety of plastics, adhesives, glues, elastics and lubricants, some of which can cause irritation.

Breaking down the diaper

Disposables are intended to wick away as much liquid as possible from the surface of the baby's skin, while containing solid waste as best as possible through a snug fit, cuffs and a cinched waistband fitted with adjustable tabs.

Though neither Proctor and Gamble nor Kimberly-Clark, the maker of Huggies diapers, responded to requests for information by CBC News, a manufacturing consulting website, The Diaper Industry Source, says most disposable diapers contain sodium polyacrylate, a super-absorbant gelling material. A polymer, it has the ability to absorb 1,000 times its weight in water, making it a very useful diaper component in its ability to contain urine.

Sodium polyacrylate's material safety data sheet indicates that "the respirable dust is a potential respiratory tract irritant." The dust "may cause burning, drying, itching and other discomfort, resulting in reddening of the eyes," not to mention lung irritation.

Diapers can contain cancer-causing dioxin when the paper used to make them is bleached, though a 2002 U.S. study found that exposure through diapers is significantly less than through food, and not of great concern. They 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.
Procter and Gamble denies Dry Max causes chemical burns. ((Jennifer Kerr/Associated Press))

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 odours or chemical odours, 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.

Alternatives to disposables

With the recent controversy around big-name disposables, "green" diaper manufacturers as well as sellers of cotton diapers are cashing in. The last five years have seen an increase in the number of these products, many of which promise chlorine-free paper pulp as an absorbant layer, as well as diapers that are fragrance-free and hypoallergenic.

One such company, Seventh Generation, lists what's in its diapers on its website — a departure from the large diaper manufacturers who do not disclose this information.

Companies that sell or provide cotton diaper services also say that their product provides parents with peace of mind: their products are made of a 100 per cent breathable, all-natural material and are chemical-free. However, many parents feel they fail to offer the ease of use and convenience provided by disposables, though their cost is comparable.