"Will That Kill My Kid?" Plastic Bag Edition

Episode 2 of Mad Men opens on Betty Draper and her neighbor Francine, smoking while gossiping about PTA moms and the divorcee moving in next door, until they realize the house is too quiet. 

Sally Draper appears, wearing a dry cleaning bag as a spaceman costume.
"Sally Draper, come over here this minute."
Sally peers up at her mom through the plastic film covering her face.
"If the clothes from that dry cleaning bag are on the floor of my closet, you are going to be a very sorry young lady."
Sally troops toward the stairs, bag still on her head.
"Make sure your brother hasn't climbed out of the play yard." 

The scene separates Betty and Francine from modern parents. It's the 60s! Parents then were so careless! 

The scene also offers up Betty for parent-shaming. We see her callous disregard for Sally's safety as a character flaw. We would never let our kids play with plastic bags. We would recycle the bags as soon as we were done with them. Or better yet, we would be using reusable cloth bags. And we wouldn't leave a child alone under a kindergartener's supervision. That's just a sampling of the judgment heaped on one YouTube clip on this fictional character.

Playing with plastic bags is just one of those things we all know not to do, a piece of parenting advice handed down through generations. But the evidence suggests that Betty Draper might be right to worry more about her wardrobe than the plastic bag. Are modern parents too worried about this health hazard?

How afraid should we be of plastic?  PC: Ian Schneider for StockSnap.io

How afraid should we be of plastic? 

PC: Ian Schneider for StockSnap.io

How Dangerous Were Plastic Bags?

Sitting in her kitchen in 1960, Betty Draper may not have known the suffocation risk posed by dry cleaning bags. Physicians were just beginning to document the dangers of plastic in 1959. In a letter to the editor of the British Medical Journal that year, R.P. Robertson describes a young patient found nearly suffocated by a cellophane bag and rubber band, presumably a result of playing spaceman. 

Canadian physician F. W. Jeffrey, also writing in 1959, linked infant suffocation back to plastic bags. That year, 16 Canadian children were killed by plastic film, 15 of whom were infants.

Their deaths followed a surprising pattern. Ten of the infants suffocated on dry cleaning bags that had been used to waterproof cribs and baby carriages. Two suffocated on plastic-covered couch cushions. Three suffocated on plastic bags they had received from older kids. It's clear from these examples that the concept of the "parent hack" is not new. These tragic cases stemmed from parents and older kids who saw the potential of plastic to simplify their lives: to keep furniture dry, to keep a baby dry, to keep a baby entertained.

Doctors were not the only people to notice the danger of plastic bags in 1959. The state of California passed legislation in July of that year requiring all bags "thinner than 0.001 inch and large enough to fit over a child's head" to include a printed safety warning

A study of California child deaths due to suffocation and strangulation found that no children aged 10 or over died from plastic bag suffocation between 1960 and 1981. The story suggests that the problem with the 1959 spaceman report may have been more about the rubber band than the bag, as bags themselves did not appear to be causing accidental death. 

The study identified 109 California children suffocated by a plastic garment bag between 1960 and 1981. Most of those children were under two years old, with the highest concentration between 4 and 6 months. 

How Dangerous Are They Now?

Plastic bags were one of many items that were the focus of public safety campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s, including cribs, construction sites, and refrigerators (remember that very special episode of Punky Brewster?). They also have been subject to legislation in California, Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island, and Virginia, as well as two cities, New York and Chicago, all of which have requirements for plastic bag labeling and/or thickness.

It seems that those safety campaigns, as well as warning labels, have had some impact. If your kid can read that label, he's at extremely low risk for accidental suffocation. That's the conclusion Ken Kennings comes to in his funny and informative Because I Said So: The Truth Behind The Myths, Tales, and Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to Its Kids

If your child is under six months old, plastic bags still pose a small suffocation risk. According to a 1999 report in Pediatrics, 218 U.S. children died from plastic bag suffocation between 1980 and 1995, an average of fewer than 15 per year. The researchers found that children ages 3 to 6 months were particularly vulnerable to suffocation by plastic, because they are mobile enough to fall or roll onto a bag but not sufficiently coordinated to get off of it. The researchers found that deaths by plastic bags significantly decreased between 1991 and 1995. 

The most dangerous bags are those that are left near infants, such as a dry cleaning bag on an adult's bed or a trash bag on a nursery floor. 

Will It Kill The Kid? Probably Not. 

While it's not entirely clear how many plastic bags are used in the United States, some groups put the number at 100 billion, which is approximately 1 bag per person per day. That figure is alarming to environmental advocates, but it should be incredibly reassuring to parents fearful of plastic bags. If it's true that there were 100 billion plastic bags put into US circulation last year, the overwhelming majority of those bags, along with billions of other bags already in circulation, are not killing children. 

In some cases, plastic bags can actually save lives. In countries without the extensive resources of NICUs, infants treated for hypothermia (below average body temperature) often end up suffering from imprecise treatments that lead to hyperthermia (above average body temperature). One study found that plastic bags wrapped around infants successfully resolved hypothermia without causing hyperthermia.  

Plastic bags do lead to a small number of preventable infant deaths, but they also are being used to save some infants' lives.


This post contains affiliate links. If you shop with our links, you'll help keep snackdinner ad-free and help us get the plastic out of our lunchboxes.