Blast from the Past: Flaming Babies!

Because I’m feeling lazy today, I’ve decided to raid my vast store of writing that’s not on the site anymore and feed it to you, because, really, it’s not like 90% of you have ever seen it before. So without further elaboration, here’s an article I wrote while I was writing humor columns for America Online, about 10 years ago. It’s about baby poop. I can tell you’re excited already.

Flaming Babies!

My friends Lisa and Michael gave birth to their first child last week (actually, Lisa did the birth-giving while Michael participated in a less active advisory role), and although I’m sure they didn’t plan it this way, their blessed event was well-timed with another baby-related milestone: last week, the disposable diaper celebrated its 35th anniversary.

The disposable diaper was created by Vic Mills, a chemical engineer at Procter & Gamble. In 1961, Mills was apparently sufficiently turned off at the prospect of changing his granddaughter’s poopy cloth diapers that he created the disposable diaper as an alternative. This created what
would eventually become the Pampers brand of diaper and proved, once again, that the greatest engine of invention in Western Civiliztion is man’s single-minded determination to avoid real work. Mills went on from Pampers to work with Jif peanut butter and Pringles potato chips. Presumably he washed his hands first.

Procter & Gamble now maintains that 94% of today’s parents use disposable diapers exclusively. This is good news for Procter & Gamble and Kimberly – Clark (which makes Pampers competitor Huggies), whose brands between them account for two thirds of all disposable diaper sales in the U.S. But I found that figure mildly disturbing, because of an event that occured
with a disposable diaper during my own diaper-wearing days.

What happened was, I was wearing a diaper and I decided that it wasn’t the sort of lifestyle choice I wanted at the time. Showing a sort of manual dexterity that would soon abandon me to a childhood of nearly lethal clumsiness, I managed to disengage the diaper from my body and, after smearing some of the contents on a nearby wall (an action which, unbeknownst to me at the time, qualified me for an NEA grant), I placed the diaper on a dresser near my crib. Sometime thereafter, the diaper exploded in flame. Fortunately, mom happened to be nearby and the situation was handled before major property damage occured. I also survived.

To this day, we don’t know exactly what caused the diaper to spontaneously combust (the best guesses are that sunlight hitting the contents heated them to ignition point, or that mom had been feeding me the Gerber Mashed Habanero Chile Dinner). Since then, however, I’ve wondered if Spontaneous Disposable Diaper Combustion happens with any frequency. Since my friends are now reproducing, and it’s likely that I and my wife will do so in the next few years, I wanted to get this settled now.

So I called Procter and Gamble’s Pampers hotline and told them my flaming diaper story.

“That’s highly unusual,” the Pampers hotline lady said, in the careful tone of voice that they’re probably trained to use whenever they’re dealing with a nut case. “Did your mother contact the diaper manufacturer at the time?” she asked.

Immediately I got an image of my mother as a young woman, crackling diaper in one hand, a phone in the other, trying to get through before the flames burned through the diaper and started charring her fingers. Meanwhile, she’s put on hold and made to listen to “Mandy.”

I admitted to the Pampers hotline lady that I don’t think my mother thought about it at the time. “Well,” the Pampers lady said, “We’ve been making diapers for 35 years and this is the first time I’ve heard of this. It’s bizzare.” To double-check, we went through the ingredients that make
a modern disposable diaper: polypropylene fabric, wood pulp, a special polymer gel. The back sheet is polyethelyne, and the leg elastics, synthetic rubber.

“None of which have been known to spontaneously combust,” I prompted.

“No, sir,” The Pampers lady assured me. I got another mental image, this time of Procter & Gamble research scientists, dressed in asbestos suits, schottzing napalm through a flamethrower at a disposable diaper. The diaper lies on pedestal, impervious to flame, inclining slightly towards the scientists as if to say “Have you SEEN what comes out of a baby? Have you?!? This is nothing!”

The lady who answered the line at Kimberly – Clark also maintained that her company had no spantaneously combusting disposable diaper stories. “It’s definitely an unusual story,” The Huggies lady said, mirroring almost exactly in words and tone what the Pampers lady said (did the Pampers lady call ahead to warn the Huggies lady? Is there some sort of weird diaper lady cabal? My suspicions, though well-founded, went unanswered). However, the Huggies lady did allow that a diaper could, theoretically, catch flame if it were placed too close to a “heat source.”

What kind of heat source? “Like an open pit fire,” the Huggies lady suggested.

Parents, if you were thinking of gently toasting your disposable diapers on a Homecoming bonfire to give them that comfy, hot-from-the-dryer feeling, don’t. And if you’ve already begun, stop now. Nothing good can come from it. We have it on authority from the Huggies lady herself.

In the main, it appears that our national supply of disposable diapers is as safe from spontaneous combustion as it has ever been in its 35 year history. The only threat from a disposable diaper is the same threat that helped create the disposable diaper in the first place: what your own little angel puts in it.

16 Comments on “Blast from the Past: Flaming Babies!”

  1. Hmm. Yet another reason I can use when I tell people why I use cloth. My cloth diapers seem to be flame retardant so far. Although I’m sure if I bring this up, it will only add to the “Cloth? Are you CRAZY?” looks I already get.

    For the record, as a public service announcement I will report here that cloth diapers have come a helluva long way in the last 45 years. There are no diaper pins, no plastic pants, very few leaks, and no toilet swishing anymore. If you are in the baby diapering phase of life (as I am) and this is your idea of cloth, check them out again. Seventy-five dollars and a really easy laundry load a week can save you money and the environment.

    And I don’t think they’ve ever spontaneously burst into flames.


    Tuesday, July 18 2000
    When Diapers Attack
    Dateline: Allen, TX: At an apartment complex, a person changes his or her baby. The dirty diaper, probably a Pampers or similar, is wrapped in a plastic bag and then thrown into a plastic garbage bag on the back porch. Consequently forgotten about, too.

    Leave it to the heat: an overly hot Texas summer (allegedly – though I’m sure it’s normal) actually heated up the diaper enough to spontaneously combust. That, coupled with flammable plastics around it, caused a whopping $3,000 in damage. From a diaper.

    Morals: take out your trash, and watch what your kid eats! -pm

  3. Ahh yes, I’ve always said that necessity isn’t the true mother of invention; it’s laziness.

    Look at almost every major innovation in history and it is almost certain to be a labor or effort saving device.

    Sure they have other implications, but at core everything from cars to computers are labor saving devices.

    The only real exception are those things which make us look better, that which makes food taste better, and that which keeps us alive longer… satisfying those basic needs of life.

    It’s all about Maslow and La-Z-Boy.

  4. Truth is, you were wearing disposable diapers at least 36 years ago. They were some nasty looking things still in use today – – – Chux. Had to be pinned and fell apart before they were “loaded” I surely remember the flaming diaper, but darlin’ I’ve always suspected there was smething you weren’t telling me. Love you, kiddo.

  5. Hey, if whole humans can spontaneously combust under extremely unusual conditions, why not their waste? Note that in both cases mentioned, it was full diapers, not empty, that burned.

  6. Let’s get the obligatory joke out of the way:

    Something Something Hot Pants!

    On to more serious matters. You say you placed said diaper on a dresser? Hmmm. I doubt your Mom polished her furniture with lighter fluid but is it possible the dresser had some oil based finish on it?

    I could almost buy the explanation that the diaper somehow concentrated volatile vapors from the dresser finish.


  7. We think it had more to do with light coming through the window hitting the poop just so and heating it up to flammable temperatures. That’s the going theory, anyway.

  8. Theorize all you want, but this ( ) Straight Dope staff report makes me a little skeptical.

    For example, when speaking of burning human poop he says “On a wet basis, it can have less than 1000 Btu/lb, which is too little to sustain its own combustion.”

    So you’d have to dry it first and I doubt that happened.

  9. Heard of the show called Mythbusters in Discovery Channel?
    How bout trying to shoot that myth at them to see if they run with. Will be pretty cool


  10. I would bet that the powdery stuff in the disposables that absorbs water does so in an exothermic fashion (i.e. releases heat). So a bunch of pee plus the sunlight just might have gotten it too hot.

    I’ll keep an eye on this with my kid.

    Enviroment-wise, I’m not sure all that fresh water to wash and detergent down the drain is any better for the environment than tucking the used diaper away in a modern landfill where it’ll stay safely out of the way for just about ever. At least where I live, landfill space is easier to come by than fresh water (at least when we had a dry winter).

  11. The miracle powder in diapers is called sodium polyacrelate, and can absorb up to 200x its weight in liquid. It’s not a chemical reaction, really, but a physical reaction (if you left the powder out for long enough, the liquid would evaporate and you’d have the powder again–essentially the powder is like a sponge). So, no heat released.

    You wouldn’t really want an exothermic reaction occurring near your baby’s tushy anyway, as the skin there is pretty sensitive to begin with. Now, what the baby puts into it is a whole ‘nother story.

    I’d place more likelihood on the external part of the diaper, plus intense, focused sunlight, being the culprit.

  12. Now I’m only 14, but this is one of the funniest things I’ve heard about! This shouldn’t be on Mythbusters alone, it should be on Jerry Springer and every other talk show!

  13. What about some source of sparkles on the dresser or nearby, like a defective lamp, wire or main supply, which could have ignited the plastic shell of the diaper …

  14. One of the great joys of hitting the Random button on Whatever is that you can arrive at a destination which enthrals you, as well as completely baffling you.

    Exploding diapers, blogged long, long before you had a baby, and indeed referring back to the possibility of your own diapers exploding; I cannot imagine anyone but you writing that.

    So, thank you; I’m really glad that Athene will, at some point in her life, be really grateful that her dad has tackled the big issues, and exploding diapers are a pretty big issue…

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