Something Really Old IV: Flaming Babies!

Another take from the AOL years (1996 – 1998).


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-mided 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 a 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.

20 Comments on “Something Really Old IV: Flaming Babies!”

  1. You can’t fool me, Scalzi, what really happened is that you were “punking” your mom. You sent her your first bag of flaming poop! You must have been a terror to your neighbors at Halloween time.

  2. Hilarious. I had a kid who tried to change her own messy diaper once. There are not sufficiently powerful words to describe what that bedroom looked and smelled like.

  3. When my younger brother was an infant, we lived in a two story house. One day, I was coming down the stairs (I was around six years old at the time) and I came upon the family schnauzer sniffing something. It was a round, brownish rubbery mass, big enough to fit in my hand. At that moment, my grandmother saw me and the dog, and I showed her what he’d found. She immediately realized that when she’d been taking one of my brother’s diapers downstairs to throw it in the trash, apparently his poop fell out.


  4. I’m guessing sun through window glass super heating the methane arising from the Scalzi deposit on the diaper led to it’s combustion.

    I think Mythbusters needs to get involved to sift this story though.

  5. Sunlight focused through a drop of something, or through a bottle? It may have been smoldering when it was placed there. Perhaps you backed into a heater, set it alight, and that inspired you to remove it? You make me imagine too much!

  6. Was there a lamp on your dresser that had been turned on? Maybe a portion of the open diaper was resting on the hot light bulb and eventually….My son burned a hole in one of his sweaters that way.

  7. It’s not related to exploding diapers, but one thing I’ve noticed after reading several of these old AOL postings is that John’s a MUCH better writer now. No doubt he’ll think that’s an obvious progression, but sadly, in my experience at least, it’s not. Lots of writers don’t get better and sometimes they get much, much worse (an obvious case that comes to mind is Patricia Cornwell).

  8. I don’t doubt that a dirty diaper could spontaneously combust. Molding hay has been known to do that before, and compost heaps. Basically anything decomposing creates a whole lot of heat and flammable gas (like methane, in the diaper case). Added to the additional heat from a window, yeah, I’d buy that.

  9. Well, the North Vancouver District warns about diapers in their Summer Safety Tips here:
    “Do not place any other refuse with disposable diapers in diaper or garbage pails as fire may result.”

    And in 2000 Dave Barry said that a lot of his readers sent in clippings from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about the spontaneous combustion diaper fire in Ennis, Texas that burned down a couple of apartments.

  10. One thought: this was a 1970s diaper as opposed to a late ’90s one. The materials may have been very different at the time.

    I almost took the more direct method – apparently at about age 2 I was alone in the living room and got ahold of my father’s Zippo lighter (which he’d left on a low coffee table) and managed to open and strike it. Fortunately my grandmother walked in before I dropped it or set myself ablaze.

    (I don’t remember this at all, but according to Dad that was the last time he ever smoked in the house.)

  11. Apparently Toddler Scalzi was ahead of his time, and so was this article. Both of the links in @Lioness Elise’s comment post-date this column, so I guess the Pampers/Huggies cabal knows better now. It can happen. Believe It Or Not!

    As if some of us weren’t already determined enough to avoid the things, now we learn this? Thanks?

  12. Please be aware that Mr S. is done with amusing us for free until he finishes
    his well deserved nap.
    I’m not aware of gods that only nap for ten days. But, ehh, whatever.

    I apologize for saying something to a troll.

    Me go sleepy bye bye snore snore now.

    HHHoOOnKKK gurgle, repeat.

    Please don’t smother me with a pillow.

  13. Plenty of fuel there. Wood pulp in the diaper: turpentine is derived from wood. Linseed oil soaked rags will spontaneously combust – what kind of finish did the bureau have? A sufficiently wet diaper may have re-dissolved the finish, especially if it was shellac. Flammable methane gas from the diaper itself. Plus heat from the sunlight, which can get very hot coming through a window.

  14. Yesterday afternoon I read this post. Last night I went to trivia at a nearby bar, and correctly answered “what was the first brand of disposable diaper?”
    My team ended up losing, but on a technicality–if anyone ever asks you the height of the statue of liberty, ask if they mean with or without the base. 305 feet with the base, FYI.

  15. Re re reading what “Lurkertype” said I think I understand:
    @Lioness Elise’s ?
    That, in my understanding should be the lioness “Elsa” by
    Joy Adamson.
    Pleasant dreams to you and yours.

    I plan to say Snhhrrkkght gasp gasp for my snoring tonight.