A very long time ago when I bought into the lie that the secondary education system was the ONLY way you could move forward in life, I majored in biology. Biology was always my strong point, even in high school. I actually upset my high school marine biology teacher. Why? Because I had 117% in the class. I did every assignment and every extra credit opportunity. It got to the point I wasn’t allowed to turn in extra credit assignments anymore. Oops.. For me, biology just clicked. I guess similar to how painting just comes naturally to an artist, and music is just ingrained into a composer. Biology was my thing. I was good at it and there was never an end in sight; no matter how much I knew, there was always more to learn.
One of the courses I took at UAA required an original research project. This was by far one of the most difficult projects I have completed. It wasn’t the project that was hard, but rather, coming up with an idea. How do you come up with something to research, tie together and present that no one else has done before? It wasn’t easy, but eventually, I settled on the environmental impact of disposable diapers used the first year of life on babies born in 2009 in Alaska. The project turned out really well. I covered the chemical composition, leakage into groundwater supplies (which, fun fact, the majority of Alaska is reliant on well water), the temperature averages in Alaska and typical decomposition times in ideal conditions. I spent an entire semester on that project and passed with flying colors.
A few years later I made an unexpected connection purely by chance.
Before we dive in, we need to tackle a tough subject; dioxin. Maybe you’ve heard of dioxin, maybe you haven’t. Regardless, numerous sources agree that dioxin is by far, the most carcinogenic chemical in the world. Dioxins, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), are extremely toxic, accumulating in the fat of mammals and causing reproductive problems, developmental delays, damage to the immune system and endocrine disruption. The World Health Organization (WHO) also states dioxin may also cause cancer. Dioxin was one of the primary components of Agent Orange, and we all know how that ended.
Dioxin is not a single chemical, but rather a group of uniquely structured chemical compounds and biological characteristics. Dioxins are considered to be persistent environmental pollutants (POPs). There are hundreds of chemicals that fall within this classification and are members of one of three specific classes of dioxins
- Chlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (CDDs),
- Chlorinated dibenzofurans (CDFs) and
- Certain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
Naturally occurring events such as forest fires, may produce CDDs and CDFs, however, the vast majority of dioxins are released unintentionally through manufacturing processes, while some are the result of man-made emissions, such as burning trash. While dioxin is not used deliberately in the United States, it is often created as a byproduct of the paper-bleaching process; use on numerous products, such as disposable diapers, paper towels, printer paper, paper towels, toilet paper and much much more.. It can also be found as a result of the production of chlorinated organic compounds, such as those found in certain pesticides. The EPA has been working with government entities as well as manufacturing companies in an effort to dramatically reduce the production and release of dioxin into the environment.
One of the biggest problems with dioxin, aside from how toxic it is, is how chemically stable it is upon entering the human body and being absorbed by fat tissue. It is estimated that the half-life of dioxin in the human body is 7 to 11 years. In animals, dioxin tends to work its way up the food chain, with higher amounts of dioxin being found in the tissues of animals higher on the chain. Additionally, toxic effects are believed to occur with very tiny amounts of dioxin, measured as small as 1 part per TRILLION.
While the majority of dioxin exposure is believed to be through food, emerging research indicates that dioxin may be absorbed through the skin in dangerously significant quantities. According to the World Health Organization, infants are at the greatest risk of dioxin exposure due to rapid absorption, quick growth, and long half-life.
I don’t care how you choose to diaper your child. This isn’t about that. This is an objective look at the dioxins found in disposable diapers.
Disposable diapers pose a significant health risk to infants and children for a multitude of reasons; many of which apply to the use of disposable menstrual pads and tampons as well. In addition to dioxin, disposable diapers contain Sodium Polyacrylate, a super absorbent polymer used to soak up liquids. These super absorbent polymers are compact and bead-like when dry, but as they absorb liquids, puff up and become gel-like. Many parents have seen these beads escape the diaper when it is over-saturated or the diaper has been damaged or torn in some other way. These super absorbent polymers were used in tampons previously but were banned in tampons due to a dramatic increase in the risk of developing toxic shock syndrome (TSS). In disposable diapers, Sodium Polyacrylate contributes to increased incidence of rashes, due to the super absorbent polymers pulling oils and moisture away from the skin. Sodium polyacrylate is also believed to contribute to staph infections in newborns and infants, likely due to the lack of oils and moisture in the child’s skin. Despite the dangers of super absorbent polymers in disposable diapers, dioxin is still the primary concern.
Disposable diapers contain a great deal of paper and wood pulp in their production. All of which is bleached and chemically treated to give disposable diapers their appealing, “clean,” white appearance. Surprisingly, even disposable diapers marketed and advertised as being “natural” or “environmentally friendly” often still contain dioxin. Unbleached disposable diapers (brown to beige in appearance) should not contain dioxin, however, may still contain trace amounts when produced in a facility that also produces bleached diapers.
An alarming study conducted in 2002 tested four brands of tampons and four brands of disposable diapers for dioxin. The results? Every single sample contained dioxin. While many found this study re-assuring of the safety of disposable diapers, others forget the significant effect that cumulative and repeated exposure to dioxin can have. Fortunately, none of the samples contained the most dangerous form of dioxin, however, there were detectable amounts in every single sample. Given the minuscule amount of dioxin required to produce negative health effects, as well as the fact that babies usually spend 24 hours a day in diapers for at least the first year of life, this is alarming. Dioxin exposure is cumulative and is believed to be absorbed through the skin at higher rates in younger individuals, as demonstrated by the study on rats, showing that younger rates (3 months old, “young adults) absorbed 16% of dioxin through their skin, while older rats (9 months old, adults) only absorbed 5% of the same dose applied to the skin. While younger rats were not tested, one can only imagine that even younger rats, perhaps newborns, would absorb dioxin in higher percentages.
Reproductive Consequences of Dioxin
Endometriosis, a reproductive disease in women, is diagnosed by the presence of endometrial tissue outside of the uterus. Endometriosis is typically found in the pelvic cavity, but in extreme cases can be found on and near organs other than the uterus, ovaries, and bladder. Endometriosis can cause heavy, long and painful periods, pain urinating or during sex, nausea, and vomiting, bowel problems and infertility.
Endometriosis was medically identified as a medical condition in the late 1860’s, and was more readily recognized and treated as early as the 1920s, but was still considered a relatively rare and uncommon condition up until the 1980’s. By the 1970’s, endometriosis was readily diagnosed through the use of endoscopy. In the 1980’s, endometriosis was rarely seen and based on a 1979 study, was believed to affect as many 3.3% of women. At the time, there was believed to be no difference in endometriosis rates among different races and socioeconomic classes and that belief has proven true, even to today., despite the dramatic increase of endometriosis rates.
Endometriosis is believed to affect 7.5 million women and girls in the United States and Canada. Doctors continue to be baffled by the fact that 10-20% of women are believed to be affected by endometriosis. Advances and changes in diagnostic methods and reporting do not explain the epidemic rates of endometriosis being observed in modern medical care. According to the United States, 11% of American women are believed to suffer from endometriosis.
Disposable Diapers, Dioxin, & Endometriosis: How does it connect?
Disposable diapers were initially a luxury item introduced in the 1930s, intended for the wealthy. Their use wasn’t common and most families still used old-fashioned cloth diapers with pins. As the 1960’s approached, disposable diapers began to become more and more common for everyday use. In the 1950’s, nearly 100% of babies wore cloth diapers, with very few families able to afford the luxury of disposable diapers. By the 1960’s, disposable diapers began to take over, becoming more and more popular by the day due to more economical production, allowing even “poorer” households to afford them. By 1980, 50% of babies wore disposable diapers and 50% of babies still wore cloth diapers. By 2014 a shocking 95% of babies wear disposable diapers.
Take a good look at that chart, then scroll a little further back and compare it to the chart Let’s assume that the dioxin found in disposable diapers is, in fact, linked to disposable diapers. If we take into account that the average age a woman is diagnosed with endometriosis is between 25 and 35 years old, we will only begin to see the increase of endometriosis rates in women who were cloth diapered in 1980 between 2005 and 2015. This means, that if this theory is true, we will not see the full impact of disposable diapers on endometriosis rates until 2039 to 2049.
While there are many causes and sources linked with dioxin exposure and the negative effects of such exposure, until further scientific studies are conducted, and more data is collected as these babies age, one can only conclude that a direct correlation may exist between the use of disposable diapers and the development of endometriosis due to dioxin exposure.