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Cloth diapers, like this clothesline of the bumGenius brand, have come back into style for their environmental and health benefits.

Cloth diapers benefit baby health and the environment, advocates say

by Elizabeth Diffin
April 30, 2009

Natural and Disposable?

Cloth diaper manufacturers aren’t the only ones getting in on the eco-friendly trend. This month, Kimberly-Clark Worldwide, Inc. announced the launch of Huggies Pure & Natural Diapers, hypoallergenic, latex and fragrance free diapers with an outer layer made of organic cotton.

This new product, which retails at Babies R Us for $10.99 for a jumbo-pack, is not a reaction to competition from the cloth diapering industry, according to Dave Dickson, a spokesman for Kimberly-Clark.

"We are continually working with and understanding consumer wants and needs," Dickson said. "Overall, there is an area of the consuming public that is more potentially attuned to being environmentally conscious."

Lisa Joy Rosing, an Evanston-based cloth diapering educator, said that these "greener" disposables still are not as environmentally friendly as the cloth option.

"They’re still produced and they’re not reusable," Rosing said. "Obviously it’s a better choice. But that is not really going green."

Pampers producer Procter & Gamble, Huggies’ main competitor, does not yet have an environmentally friendly diaper. However, Tricia Higgins, a spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble, said that innovations are constantly in the works.

"We try and do whatever we can to make a better product," Higgins said. "At the end of the day, moms choose what is best for them and their baby."

They come in a rainbow of colors and patterns, with cutesy names – FuzziBunz, Happy Heinys and Swaddlebees. But despite such creative conventions, local cloth diaper advocates take the environmental and health benefits of cloth diapers very seriously.

Advocates say cloth diapers are more eco-friendly, since they don’t end up in landfills, and healthier for babies because they are free from toxins that may be found in disposable diapers. But disposable diaper manufacturers and regulating agencies argue that their products are sterile and environmentally safe and say that the choice comes down to what type of carbon footprint a consumer is going to leave.

Disposable diaper manufacturers, such as Kimberly-Clark Worldwide, Inc., the maker of the popular Huggies brand, often point to a 2003 study from the regulatory agency that oversees the environment in England and Wales. The study, updated in October 2008, concluded that reusable diapers may actually have a greater global warming impact than much-maligned disposables, due to washing and sterilization.

Lori Taylor, the president of the non-profit Real Diaper Association, called the study flawed and the conclusions inaccurate. She took fault with the methodology used, since only 183 cloth-diaper-users were studied, many of whom used a high-impact terry fabric uncommon in the United States, as opposed to 2,000 disposable-diaper-users studied.

"It seems disingenuous for disposable diaper manufacturers to say that they’re equal to cloth diapers," Taylor said. "It’s easy to say they’re the same, but they’re not."

Amy Ellison, a cloth diapering educator who teaches at Be By Baby in Lakeview, said that health and comfort concerns are also an important consideration for parents looking into utilizing reusable diapers. The major fear is the chemicals that have traditionally been used in disposable-diaper manufacturing, such as dioxin, a chemical contaminant that’s created in the wood pulp-making process, Tributyl-tin (known as TBT), a toxic organotin, and sodium polyacrylate, the super-absorbent gel that Ellison said was removed from tampons due to a potential link to toxic shock syndrome.

According to Tricia Higgins, a spokeswoman for Pampers, the company’s diapers do not contain dioxin or TBT, and extensive testing has shown that sodium polyacrylate is non-irritating, non-allergenic, mild and safe for diaper use.

Dave Dickson, a spokesman for Kimberly-Clark, said that there is no link between toxic shock syndrome and diaper usage because toxic shock syndrome is caused by having a tampon inserted into the vagina over a long period of time, not simply through contact with the skin.

Comer Children’s Hospital uses disposable diapers for convenience and sanitation reasons. Dr. Poj Lysouvakon, the director of the general care nursery at Comer, said that disposable diapers appear to be safe for babies.

"[Sodium polyacrylate] is inert, so it shouldn’t really cause long-term health problems," Lysouvakon said. And although he said it’s known that "dioxin is not good for you," he’s uncertain whether the amount that might be in diapers would even have an impact on babies’ health.

The British environmental study concluded that the environmental impact of reusable diapers is largely dependent on the way they are laundered. And according to Taylor, laundering practices for cloth diapers have changed significantly since the study was released, and simple steps can be taken at home to minimize the effects.

Jennifer Labit, the chair of the Real Diaper Industry Association, the trade organization that works in conjunction with the Real Diaper Association, also emphasized the disparity between the treatment of the two types of diapers.

"They’re looking at the worst-case scenario for using cloth and the best-case for using disposables," she said.

The Real Diaper Association recommends using a front-loading, Energy Star rated washer and not to exceed 140 degrees for water temperature (the maximum on most American washers). Taylor also said that using low-impact detergents and air-drying the diapers whenever possible will reduce the environmental impact.

The study itself concluded that by washing a full load, line drying and handing-down diapers to a second child would lower global warming impact by 40 percent, the equivalent of 200 kilograms of carbon dioxide over two-and-a-half years.

Taylor said that since there have been so few studies on the impact of disposable diapers as opposed to the reusable cloth kind, it’s difficult to know what’s correct. Indeed, according to Tisha Petteway, a press officer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the agency does not conduct any comparisons between diaper varieties, nor does it track data on the disposal of diapers.

Lisa Joy Rosing, an Evanston mother who teaches cloth diapering classes at three locations in the Chicago area, said it’s important to consider that the average baby uses 6,000 diapers from birth to potty-learning, producing about 4,000 pounds of waste that ends up in a landfill. She also said she’s concerned about the presence of human feces in landfills, which the World Health Organization and American Public Health Organization say could cause the spread of disease and bacteria. Disposable diaper packaging instructs consumers to flush solid waste down a toilet, but that instruction is usually ignored by harried parents who would rather just throw away the waste.

However, according to Chaz Miller, the director of state programs at the National Solid Wastes Management Association in Washington, D.C., the relatively small amount of disposable diapers in the landfill system means that the human fecal matter doesn’t pose much of a health risk.

"It’s not going to be a problem," Miller said. "In landfill materials, [disposable diapers] are a very, very small percentage."

There is also a question as to which diapers cause or prevent diaper rash. Cloth diaper advocates say that disposable users tend to leave their baby sitting in wetness for too long, which leads to the rash, while disposable diaper makers laud the progress made in the incidence of diaper rash since the introduction of their product. However, cloth diapers that haven’t been properly laundered can have a build-up of bacteria and acid that leads to diaper rash.

From a medical standpoint, Lysouvakon said when it comes to cloth or disposables, one is not better than the other in terms of caring for a baby’s delicate skin.

Despite the reassurances, Ellison said that some parents err on the side of caution if they’re uncertain of the health impact of a disposable diaper.

"Some people really prefer to stay away from the things they can’t pronounce," she said. "While you can’t contain every environmental factor, you can try to limit some of them."

Labit said that sense of control tends to be very important for many cloth-diapering parents.

"You control what detergent you use. You know exactly what the diaper is made out of," she said. "The security of knowing what’s going on your baby’s bottom is really important to many parents."

Indeed, the baby’s comfort has become an important factor for new moms and dads, who may be confused by campaigns that market disposable diapers as being "more like cloth."

"That says a lot," Rosing said. "What’s going to be more comfortable: ‘more like cloth’ or cloth?"

Cloth diapering advocates also point out that the comfort of cloth diapers – or lack of comfort when a child urinates and it isn’t immediately absorbed – may also lead to another benefit: earlier potty-learning. In fact, according to Rosing, studies show that children who use cloth diapers tend to become potty-trained six months earlier, on average. She said her own children would even bring her diapers when they became wet because they were aware of the sensation.

"[Cloth] allows kids to make the connection," Rosing said.

Ultimately, there isn’t a clear-cut decision when it comes to choosing cloth or disposable diapers. And with environmental and health concerns to take into account, the choice can become overwhelming. But experts on both sides agree on one thing: It comes down to whatever the parent finds comfortable.

"Take it all with a grain of salt. Be comfortable with your own preferences," Lysouvakan said. "There is no one nail-in-the-coffin argument."