Officials say 90% of European babies have been exposed to “very severe” chemicals in nappies / diapers sold throughout Europe in recent years, putting them at risk of “potentially very severe diseases” later in life.
France’s ANSES agency tested best-selling brands of disposable nappies and found 38 “very severe hazard” chemicals  in nappies sold throughout Europe . Most of the chemicals disrupt hormones, the officials say , a property that means they have no safe exposure level .
The agency estimates that over 14 million European children could suffer “potentially very severe, variable and latent diseases affecting their quality of life over their lifetime… such as cancers, suspected endocrine disruption, reprotoxic effects, etc.”  Children are particularly vulnerable to chemicals, according to the World Health Organisation.
ANSES followed-up by testing 9 brands in 2020 and found only one of the chemicals still present, formaldehyde, a carcinogen. But contamination could return, so the agency asked the EU to strictly limit the chemicals in nappies.
That proposal is being resisted by EU institutions. The European Chemicals Agency acknowledges  potential risks, said the chemicals should not be present, but claims the French failed to properly demonstrate a risk to children. That position is flawed, NGOs say. Yesterday, the European Commission missed a legal deadline  to respond to the French proposal, stalling consumer protections for months or years .
21 NGOs, including the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), HEAL and ClientEarth, wrote to the Commission saying that the health consequences to children could be irreversible and the Commission should ban the chemicals using precautionary powers.
EEB deputy manager for chemicals, Dolores Romano, said: “Day after day, week after week, incredibly sensitive newborns and toddlers may be exposed to some of the most toxic substances on the planet. Incredibly, this situation is perfectly legal. French pressure forced manufacturers to clean up their act, showing that it is perfectly possible. But as soon as the inspectors are gone, the problem could be back. That’s why a law is needed. The Commission recently pledged to protect children from chemical hazards. It should take this nappies threat seriously, stop wasting time and eliminate toxic nappies.”
Vice chair of the European Parliament Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, Anja Hazekamp, said: “It is very worrying that millions of newborns and children in Europe are already being exposed to dangerous chemicals while they are still in diapers. It is even more worrying that despite the evidence for this, the official EU Chemicals Agency chooses to defend the economic interests of the industry, rather than supporting safety-restrictions that would protect the health of these young children. We will continue our fight for a toxic-free environment for all citizens throughout their lives, and surely in their younger and most vulnerable years.”
Member of the European Parliament Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety and campaigner on chemical issues, Maria Arena, said: “Every day, parents risk exposing their new born babies to toxic chemicals simply by changing their diapers. It should not be up to parents to know whether the nappies they are using may be toxic or not. The harmful effects of these substances are well known, they should simply not be allowed in any childcare products. The EU must step up and ban those substances in nappies and ensure a toxic-free environment for all.”
Member of the European Parliament Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, Tilly Metz, said: “There is an accumulation of evidence documenting how chemicals impact children’s development. Why is the EU so slow and reluctant in taking action to protect them? I urge the Commission to urgently remedy this and set high EU standards for healthier single use diapers.”
European Parliament member and pharmacist, Jutta Paulus, said: “Our youngest are the most vulnerable when it comes to toxic chemicals. It is our duty to protect them from potentially lifelong damage through harmful substances in nappies.”
A thousand nappies are made in Europe every minute, according to the French. The market is worth €7 billion a year and dominated by two brands, Pampers (36%) and Huggies (26%), they say. More than 90% of European parents have used them since the 1990s, led in the EU27 by France, where 3.2 billion were sold in 2015, and outside the EU27 by the UK. French officials say the restriction would not significantly harm business and could even improve it. Industry complained, saying the chemicals restriction is bad for business.
Beyond nappies, daily exposure to synthetic chemicals in everyday products is contributing to growing rates of cancer, reproductive problems and metabolic diseases, such as diabetes and obesity, among other impacts. Scientists say babies are born “pre-polluted”. Chemical pollution recently crossed a planetary boundary, they say. Official polling found 84% of Europeans worried about the health impact of chemicals in products and 90% about their impact on the environment.
There was international media coverage in April of EU plans to ban thousands of notorious chemicals from consumer products, including nappies. The French proposal is the first test of that plan, the EEB said.
The EU is planning far-reaching reforms of its chemical controls, starting with its centerpiece REACH Regulation. REACH could have prevented toxic nappies if officials only had to prove ‘high concern’ rather than today’s legal benchmark of ‘unacceptable risk’, NGOs say.
 ANSES found formaldehyde, plus 37 substances belonging to four chemical families (see pages 99 – 103 in French or from page 137 in English) in nappies as residues from industrial processes. ANSES considers that they all have “very severe hazard profiles” (page 74). They are:
Formaldehyde is classified as carcinogenic in humans, mutagenic and triggers allergic skin reactions. It is banned in toys and other consumer products.
10 chemicals in the PAH family. These are classified as carcinogenic in humans. PAHs also disrupt hormones.
12 PCBs. Banned from all products since 1987, they are known to cause severe adverse health effects, including: hepatic, immunological, neurological, metabolic and endocrine toxic impacts; adverse reproductive impacts; mutagenicity impacts; and genotoxic impacts.
15 chemicals in the closely related PCDD (dioxin) and PCDF (furan) families. These chemicals are known to cause severe adverse health impacts, including: hepatic, immunological, neurological, metabolic and endocrine toxic impacts; adverse reproductive impacts; mutagenicity impacts; and genotoxic impacts.
 In 2018 and 2019, the French tested 51 samples of best selling baby nappies, including so-called eco-friendly nappies (page 16 – 19). They note that the sample is representative of the nappy market throughout Europe (page 136) and that toxic nappies are a risk throughout the bloc (page 41) due to strong interstate trade. ANSES did not publish information on contamination by brand.
 See pages 75-78 and 103-107.
 The Endocrine Society says endocrine disrupting chemicals are dangerous at any concentration.
 Page 14 of the French proposal: “Given the widespread use of single-use baby diapers, the Dossier Submitter considers that the proposed restriction is expected to prevent 90% of European babies (i.e. 14.5 million babies) from being exposed to hazardous chemicals contained in their diapers every year.”
 ECHA’s risk assessment committee found that “…it is not possible to conclude that there are no potential risks from these substances in single-use diapers…” (page 9). It found that the chemicals “…should be kept to a level as low as possible/feasible, and preferably not be present at all.” (page 10)
 The Commission has 3 months to propose the legal text of a chemical restriction, which will then go to a vote of member state representatives. See Article 73.
 The Commission’s industry department, DG GROW, has a lax attitude to chemical protections and has never once met the 3 month deadline since the law came into force in 2007. Following that, it normally (median duration) takes the Commission 19 months to adopt restriction proposals, with the slowest on record taking 3 years and 10 months, according to a new study by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). Firms are free to continue selling what national officials consider dangerous products until the Commission approves a restriction.
EEB deputy manager for chemicals Dolores Romano (ES / EN) +34 659 821 344
Communications Officer Andreea Anca (EN, RO, HU) +32 493 732 105
Professor of pediatrics, Department of Pediatrics NYU Grossman School of Medicine, Dr Leonardo Trasande (EN). Biography.
National NGO contacts available on request