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The Toxic Load of Diapers—Plus Other Ways to Make a Home Safe for Babies

Long-time goop friend Christopher Gavigan has never made a secret of his concern for the health and welfare of all of our kids—or the earth that they will inherit—which is why he’s spent the last couple decades fighting for safer products and more regulations. For years, he was the head of Healthy Child, Healthy World (which is now part of the Environmental Working Group), before founding The Honest Company with Jessica Alba and Brian Lee in 2012. While the initial proposition was safe, non-toxic (and adorable) diapers and other baby essentials, the brand is booming, offering everything from cribs to bottles. We asked him a few questions about what goes into a diaper-and for other tips for keeping little ones safe. (For more from Christopher on detoxing a home, click here.)


Why is it so important to protect little ones in particular?


There are a variety of reasons babies are uniquely vulnerable to toxic chemicals, including:

1. Children aged one to five eat three to four times more food per pound than the average adult American. If there are pesticides in that food, they’re getting far higher doses.

2. The air intake of a resting infant is twice that of an adult per pound of body weight. Again, if that air is loaded with VOCs, that baby’s exposure is double that of an adult.

3. Children’s bodies are growing and developing rapidly, so chemicals that can harm development can do maximum damage at this critical time.

4. Babies learn a lot about the world by putting everything they can reach into their mouths. (They are not discriminating.) This can put them into contact with very harmful substances.

Just like we use car seats and outlet covers to prevent accidents, parents should be paying attention to creating a non-toxic environment in order to prevent disease and protect health.


So what sort of materials are in a traditional diaper? Is there anything specifically toxic?


An average baby goes through about 8,000 diapers from birth until potty training. And that’s just an average! Since our little ones’ delicate and absorbent skin touches them 24/7, what’s inside diapers matters a lot.

Conventional diapers may look and feel safe for our kids, but are they really? Sadly, we can’t be sure because diaper manufacturers have no obligation to disclose what chemicals and raw materials are in their products. And very few scientific studies exist on the matter.

Of the few studies out there, one published in the Archives of Environmental Health in 1999 found that conventional diapers release volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, and dipentene—which are known to have long-term health effects. The study’s authors thought these toxic diaper gasses could increase the risk of asthma in children and urged further investigation. Surprisingly, additional studies never happened.

Perhaps to disguise the toxic stink of those unpronounceable VOCs and smells, manufacturers also often add a questionable ingredients such as “fragrance”—which can actually be made up of hundreds of other chemicals and may contain everything from known allergens and carcinogens to hormone-disrupting phthalates (so a trojan horse of harsh chemicals not ever disclosed to consumers). Also known to be added or included in the process are latex, lotions, chlorine processing, optical brighteners, and organotins (MBT, DBT, TBT). There isn’t enough scientific data on the health impact of these additives on babies (let alone adults).


We all know that diapering is sort of a bummer—diapers don’t biodegrade in landfills, and using cloth requires a huge amount of water (and arguably, time). All things being equal, what’s the better choice for the environment?


As you point out, full lifecycle analyses of both types of diapers show there are downsides no matter which you choose. Disposable diapers use more raw materials and create more solid waste, but cloth diapers use more energy and water leading to more air and water pollution. This is been a long-standing debate for the last 100 years, yet there’s really no clear answer to which one is a better choice for the environment, so go with whatever works for your family and choose the eco-friendly version of that product (e.g.. unbleached, plant-based disposables or organic cotton cloth), and certainly try to engage in potty training as soon as possible if you have green guilt.


What are the most noxious chemicals in products for kids, and why?


The worst of the worst types of chemicals are persistent, bioaccumulative toxics (PBTs)— which means they last a very long time (persist) in our bodies and environment and they accumulate in living organisms, so that their concentrations in body tissues continue to increase (bioaccumulate). Here are PBTs that are common in kid’s products:

Lead. Often found in kid’s jewelry and also found in PVC plastic and vintage plastic toys. Very toxic to brain development.

Cadmium. Similar to lead, cadmium is often found in jewelry and also found in PVC plastic and vintage plastic toys. It’s linked to cancer and lung, kidney, and bone damage.

Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs). These are found in the foam used in mattresses, car seats/strollers, play mats, and even fish oil supplements. Various BFRs have been linked to cancer, thyroid disruption, memory and learning problems, lower IQ, delayed mental and physical development, early puberty, and reduced fertility.

Arsenic. Also found in kid’s jewelry and vintage plastic toys, one study even found it in a toy flashlight. Arsenic is also found in apple and grape juice, rice, rice milk, and rice syrup (often used in infant formula and as a sweetener in processed foods). Arsenic causes cancers and other diseases, and early-life exposure has been associated with increased fetal mortality, decreased birth weight, and diminished cognitive function. Arsenic is a natural element, so it’s naturally present in soil and water at very low levels. The issue with apples, grapes, and rice is that arsenic used to be a crop pesticide, so soil contamination levels can be much higher, leading to higher levels of arsenic in the final product. Since it’s naturally present in the environment, arsenic can be a contaminant in organics, too. You don’t need to avoid these foods altogether, but you certainly don’t want your child consuming them every day.


What’s the deal with flame retardants? Are those still widely present? Where are they most present?


The term “flame retardants” actually refers to a whole class of hundreds of different chemicals. As the name implies, these chemicals “retard”—or slow—the spread of fire, and they are found in a dizzying array of products from furniture, mattresses, and textiles to tents, electronics, and insulation. Sadly, most flame retardants are linked to things like cancer and hormone disruption. Even worse, it’s become increasingly clear that for the most part these flame retardants aren’t even reducing injuries and death from fires.

What’s a consumer to do? When buying furnishings, mattresses, electronics, home renovation materials (like insulation and carpet padding), and baby gear (anything with foam in it), contact the manufacturer and ask if flame retardants have been used and, if so, what kind. We know it’s a BIG shopping list, but they’re mostly items you don’t buy frequently and you’ll have in your home for a very long time, so bide your time and do your research.

In regards to furnishings, pillows, and baby gear (mattresses, changing pads, car seats, nursing pillows, bassinets, high chair pads, etc.), thankfully (after years of long advocacy/legislative work here in California, flammability regulations were recently updated and no longer require the addition of flame retardants to products containing polyurethane foam. Still, it’s not an outright ban on toxic flame retardants, so here’s what you should look for:

1. If a product’s tag (usually attached to a cushion or on the body of the product somewhere) says “TB 117,” it likely contains toxic flame retardants.

2. If a product’s tag says “TB 117-2013,” it meets the updated standard which does not require the addition of flame retardants. BUT it’s still wise to contact the manufacturer and ask if they elected to use any. (I know…why can’t it be easier!?)

3. If a product uses polyester or wool filling, it is unlikely to be treated.

4. Children’s sleepwear must be treated with flame retardants, one exception being if it fits tightly on their bodies—so, go snug for safer sleep, and those that state they “don’t” meet flame retardant standards.

5. Clearly look for “flame-retardant FREE” products

The good news in this grim story is that many manufacturers are starting to make flame retardant-free products, so they’re not as difficult to find anymore.


How obsessive do we all need to be about the toxicity of things like carseats, strollers, baby carriers, etc.? Is there a point at which we can all be a little more relaxed?


I don’t think anyone should be “obsessive” about pretty much anything—it’s just not a healthy mental state— especially for new parents! Learning about hidden toxics in everyday products naturally triggers a great deal of fear and protection in parents; we want to do everything we can to protect our children. The best thing to do is educate yourself and align yourself with people and brands you can TRUST. Start learning about ingredients, read some books. Do what works for your budget and your family to kick toxics to the curb. Realize no one can do everything, you just do the best you can. And focus on living a life filled with healthy food, active play, and tons of laughter, love, and hugs. Balance is best!


Plastic toys? Worst thing in the world or a necessary evil?


Definitely not the worst thing in the world—especially since not all plastic is bad. You should absolutely avoid anything made with PVC plastic (#3) and certainly cutting back on plastics, in general, is certainly better for the planet. Still, there are great toys made from safer plastics, like Legos (made with ABS plastic) and Green Toys (made from recycled HDPE). I personally think toys made from textiles, wood, and natural rubber are more beautiful and better stand the test of time, so that’s what I prefer for my kids. There are a ton of beautiful, hand-crafted options from sustainable materials on Etsy by artisans from around the U.S. and globe.


Kind of a curveball, but what about all the pressed wood in playground equipment—something parents need to be aware of/petition against, or is this not that common?


That’s a good question and it’s actually not pressed wood, it’s treated wood. Prior to 2004, arsenic-treated (also known as CCA-treated) lumber was used wherever outdoor wood was needed—decks, playgrounds, fences, picnic tables, treehouses, etc. The arsenic (now replaced with safer chemicals) helps keep termites and other wood-eating organisms from damaging the structures. Many cities are replacing old playground equipment, but you’re likely going to come across CCA wood at some time or another. Here are some tips to keep your kids safe:

1. Wash your child’s hands with soap and water (not a hand sanitizer) after playing on CCA wood.

2. Don’t let children eat or drink while they’re playing on CCA wood.

3. Use a tablecloth on picnic tables made from CCA wood.

If you suspect you have outdoor structures made from CCA wood and you’re not in the position to replace them, follow these tips:

1. Don’t store toys under decks or let children or pets play under them. The soil could have raised levels of arsenic.

2. Avoid growing fruits and veggies in garden beds framed by CCA wood.

3. Avoid pressure-washing CCA wood as it speeds up the release of the arsenic.

4. Avoid sanding, sawing, or drilling CCA wood and don’t burn it in fires.

5. Lock in the arsenic by applying a sealant every year.

All in all, you don’t have to have a panic attack if your child touches CCA-treated wood—any presence of arsenic will not be absorbed by their skin. The risk is hand-to-mouth exposure, so washing hands well after playing is the most important thing to remember.

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