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Disposable Diapers Linked to Asthma

Harsh perfumes and chemical emissions have long been known to induce asthma-like symptoms in children and adults. Now, researchers have found that disposable diapers might be a trigger for asthma.
A study published in the October, 1999 issue of the Archives of Environmental Health found that laboratory mice exposed to various brands of disposable diapers suffered increased eye, nose, and throat irritation, including bronchoconstriction similar to that of an asthma attack. Six leading cotton and disposable diaper brands were tested; cloth diapers were not found to cause respiratory problems among the lab mice.

Dr. Rosalind C. Anderson, lead author of the report, "Acute Respiratory Effects of Diaper Emissions," explains that the diapers were tested right out of the package, and one at a time. Even in a mid-sized room, the emissions from one diaper were high enough to produce asthma-like symptoms. Solvents and other substances are typically added to products during the manufacturing process in order to affect malleability and other properties, Dr. Anderson explains. "Even if you don’t want these chemicals in the final product, it’s hard to take them out. We are finding chemical off-gasses in all sorts of baby products besides diapers, including baby mattresses and mattress covers," she says.

What chemicals were released from the diapers? Tolune, xylene, ethylbenzene, styrene, and isopropylbenzene, among others. Dr. Anderson says these, like certain scents, are bronchial irritants. "It’s similar to when asthmatics smell perfume and all of a sudden their chests get tight." Although mice are much smaller than humans, they were chosen for the study because their physiology and biochemistry are similar to that of humans. Of the brands tested, three diaper brands were found not to affect the breathing of the lab mice: American Fiber and Finishing Co., Gladrags organic cotton diapers, and Tender Care disposable diapers.

Further study is needed to determine what level of diaper chemical emission triggers infant respiratory distress. In the meantime, Dr. Anderson advises asthmatic mothers to avoid exposure to these chemicals, and to be mindful of the fact that their children may be sensitive to these and other asthma antagonists such as dust mites, roaches, and smoking. Asthma rates are on a sharp incline in the US and worldwide, particularly among poor and inner-city children.

Anderson, Rosalind, and Julius Anderson. “Acute Respiratory Effects of Diaper Emissions,” Archives of Environmental Health, 54, October 1999.


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