I have just returned from a visit to England, where I had the opportunity to meet with the Women's Environmental Network, and to hear a great deal about the way that the "diapering decision" is being made in England and other European countries.
Of course, in England there is no "diapering" at all, since what we call diapers, they call "nappies". Once the language barrier is overcome, however, there are some very interesting differences-as well as similarities-in the information that is available to parents wondering whether to use cotton or single-use products to cover their babies' bottoms.
As in North America, single-use ("disposable") products dominate the market. Unlike North America, however, there is significant awareness and discussion of the environmental and health risks associated with disposable diapers, an awareness and discussion which reaches into Parliament and the Media, as well as a burgeoning grass roots movement towards "real nappies". This movement is spearheaded by The Women's Environmental Network (WEN), which for several years has sponsored and promoted "Real Nappy Week" all over the United Kingdom.
The Real Nappy Project works with parents, hospitals, midwives and local governments to inform the community that there is a real choice about how one diapers one's baby. The environmental, economic and health advantages of reusable products are brought to the attention of the public. WEN is working to involve the National Health Service in this effort as well.
One of the most disturbing pieces of information which is available to parents in Europe, but which is almost unknown here, involves the chemical Tributyl tin (TBT). TBT is a long-lasting toxic chemical that is a known endocrine disrupter. It has been shown to cause sexual abnormalities in shellfish and to potentially affect human hormones. It is used in anti-fouling paint on ships and as an additive in plastics manufacture. There are calls for a worldwide ban on the chemical.
According to a press release dated July 30, 2000, WEN commissioned an analysis of several brands of disposable nappies after Greenpeace Germany found TBT in various nappies on sale in Germany. WEN bought nappies from several retailers and commissioned Scientific Analysis Laboratories Ltd. (an independent laboratory well known for its analysis of toxic micro-pollutants) to carry out their study. The study found that babies could be in contact with up to 3.6 times the estimated tolerable daily intake of a chemical that can be absorbed through the skin.
According to the press release, "WEN is extremely concerned that a product is being sold for use on newborn babies even though the manufacturers know it contains a chemical that, in tiny amounts, can disrupt hormones. We don't know exactly what effect TBT could have but we are concerned that it may leach out of materials it is in. Babies' skins are thinner than adults and can absorb chemicals."
Other health concerns about disposables raised by WEN include the following*
1. Most disposable contain a layer of super-absorbent gel in the fluff pulp. This draws up moisture away from the baby's skin. Little beads of this gel sometimes escape from the nappy and can be found on the baby's bottom. The gel is claimed to be non-toxic, but we really don't know very much about it.
2. Recent research suggests that disposables keep baby boys' testicles at too high a temperature, risking their future fertility.
3. At least 100 viruses found in faeces have been found to survive for over two weeks in rubbish raising risks of contamination of groundwater supplies.
*Briefing, Nappies and the Environment, WEN, December, 2000
In terms of pollution and energy use, the same briefing made this point:
"A UK ecological footprinting study has demonstrated that the 'footprint' of disposables (energy and raw material use) is greater than that of washable nappies. The study was based mainly on a study done for the disposable industry, and followed WEN's success in securing an Advertising Standards Authority ruling that disposable manufacturers could not claim they had equal impact.
Many of these same points were raised in a discussion in the Scottish Parliament when several representatives suggested that the Minister for Health and Community Care should promote the use of reusable nappies in maternity hospitals.
The decision about what type of diaper to use is one that, theoretically, is a matter of personal choice and parental authority. The problem is that in the absence of objective information from a non-involved third party, parents have very little upon which to base this decision. Disposable diapers are the most profitable product manufactured by the largest consumer products company in the world. This product is supported by literally hundreds of millions of dollars of sophisticated advertising and marketing designed to convince parents that there is not even really a "decision" to be made-that "disposable" and "diaper" are synonymous, and that there are neither health nor environmental issues to be considered.
Our English cousins clearly feel differently about this issue, and have much more information at their disposable (so to speak). If you are concerned and want to find out more for yourself. The health of your baby and the planet they will live on begins with the decisions you make for them. Perhaps a "real nappy" would make a real difference for the future of both.
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