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Toxic nappy alert

Throwaway nappies are sufficiently potentially hazardous to be classed as clinical waste when collected from hospitals, yet millions are collected as part of normal household refuse and dumped in landfill sites. Nappies account for 4% of all domestic waste.

By weight, 75% of each nappy is urine and faeces, which harbour an estimated 100 active viruses for two weeks. This untreated sewage, which may include live polio virus from vaccinations, is both a risk to refuse workers and the general public. As a nappy rots it releases acids which mobilise metals into the leachate (a sort of chemical soup which may filter down through the landfill lining into groundwater). As 35% of our drinking water comes from groundwater. Nappies are the second most common problem for local authorities after syringes.

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The direct health impact on the babies is also of concern. Throwaway nappies are are in reality a complex industrial product containing hazardous substances. One of these is a wetting agent on the top sheet called nonyl phenyl ethoxylate, which is now known to be an oestrogen mimic associated with sex changes in fish. This chemical is being phased out in Germany.

Nine million nappies a day go into landfill sites. The greenest and most responsible solution is to use re-usable nappies, which have come a long way since terries and safety pins. Re-usable nappy sets normally comprise a plastic outer casing with velcro fastenings, unbleached* washable padded towels, and gauze throwaway sheets which are placed between the towel and the baby's bottom to facilitate dropping most of the faeces down the loo.

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For the latest on re-usable nappies send a large SAE to: The Real Nappy Association, P.O. Box 3704, LONDON, SE26 4RX.

For the latest information on the hazards of nappies contact the Women's Environmental Network on 0171 247 3327.

* Bleached cloth contains dioxins which are carcinogenic and easily absorbed through the baby's skin.


Disposable nappies also contain the super absorber chemical sodium polyacrylate. This was removed from tampons in 1985 after a link with toxic shock syndrome had been shown. The possibility that it could have adverse effects on babies has not been studied.


(2165) Informed Parent


Toxic nappy alert

When the UK’s Waste Minimisation Act became law in November 1998 local councils were able, for the first time, to put money into reducing waste. Mid Sussex Council targeted disposable nappies, which accounted in their area for 1,500 tonnes of waste a year, and require almost as much energy to dispose of as they did to manufacture. Parents who sign up to a nappy washing service (including delivery of fresh supplies each week) will recoup £11.83, the amount saved in landfill costs over one year.

Compared to disposables, cotton nappies use three and a half times less energy in their manufacture, produce 60 times less waste, and involve the consumption of less water, even taking washing into account.

(5193) Libby Brooks. Guardian