Disposable Diapers Linked to 'Asthma-Like' Conditions in Mice

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 18, 1999 (Atlanta) -- What's in clean diapers could possibly be even worse than what's in dirty ones. A study published in the September/October issue of the journal Archives of Environmental Health indicates that the emissions given off by some disposable diapers cause "asthma-like conditions" in mice.

"We can't leap up and say we know this has a necessary human consequence," says Rosalind C. Anderson, PhD, the head of the privately funded Anderson Laboratories in Vermont. Anderson, who is the lead author of the study, tells WebMD, "We're fearful that it might, but we don't do the kind of study that would allow this statement."

But, says Anderson, "You don't look at a diaper, and say 'Baby, dear, this might give you asthma.' You look at a diaper and you say 'Hot dog! I've got something real convenient and it works and it's going to save me a lot of washing.'"

"We [Anderson Lab researchers] keep finding consumer products that are not what you want them to be, and this is yet another situation," Anderson says. According to the study, "the results demonstrate that some type of disposable diapers emit mixtures of chemicals that are toxic to the respiratory tract."

Anderson says the conditions are "very like what is known as occupational asthma," which is brought on by environmental conditions rather than an allergic reaction.

Russ Rader, spokesman for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), reviewed the study for WebMD. He says, "We have not seen any problem with infants having asthma-like or adverse conditions to diapers."

Most of the complaints in the past, according to Rader, concerned skin conditions or fears of children breathing in super-absorbent materials when diapers were torn open. The diapers were found safe in those cases.

Although he was aware the CPSC had issued guidelines for dealing with new carpet fumes, for instance, Rader tells WebMD, "We haven't seen anything like what's discussed in this study in terms of the reaction to mice. We haven't seen anything like that with infants." The study was passed on to a CPSC toxicologist.

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Anderson, whose lab looks at health effects of airborne chemicals, says diapers "are very mean compared to some of the things we've looked at," such as vinyl mattress covers. "The asthma effect is much stronger," she says.

The researchers exposed normal mice to the emissions of three brands of unnamed, clean, disposable diapers, and one brand of cloth diapers, for one hour in enclosed, controlled environments. The disposable diapers were chosen randomly at a nearby store, and named brands A, B, and C.

The irritations were categorized into sensory irritations (eyes, nose, mouth), pulmonary irritations (of the lungs), and "the rate at which you are able to exhale," one of the major measurements used in defining asthma in humans, Anderson tells WebMD.

After one hour of exposure to the disposable diapers, all three bands led to sensory irritation and decreased breathing capacity. However, the findings were most significant for "brand A" followed by "brand B" and "brand C." Cloth diapers produced only small changes.

Repeat exposures, up to six and 24 hours later, in some cases more than doubled the sensory and pulmonary irritation, and breathing problems with "brand A." For "brand B" the effect was even more dramatic. Negative effects in the mice in that sample at least doubled, and sensory irritation spiked by a multiple of four.

Anderson says "that's a problem" because extended exposure leads to a reaction that "has a life of its own."

According to the authors of the study, the "prevalence of childhood asthma has increased approximately three-fold during the past several decades."

Anderson tells WebMD that her study shows diapers, perhaps in concert with other products used for infants, could contribute to the "mysterious" rise in asthma. But further population studies need to be done to discover if her findings are really a "big deal," she says.

Anderson Laboratories is a private, for-profit corporation.

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