February 22, 2013

Toxic gases from shower curtains?

Is it true that vinyl shower curtains release toxic fumes? I worried about that recently when the housekeeping staff at our Florida timeshare exchanged the moldy shower curtain with a new plastic one. Yegads! I left the bathroom exhaust fan on for two days, trying to get rid of that overpowering smell. I almost took it outside for another day as those chemicals continued to "leach out" into our condo.

Even Money Magazine encouraged reders to Ditch Your Plastic Shower Curtain.

Studies have shown that vinyl shower curtains off-gas over 100 different chemicals when you buy them new. Instead of buying a new vinyl shower curtain next time yours bites the dust, go with fabric (which is washable and much more eco-friendly).

Not all shower curtains that contain vinyl are toxic. But the ones with PVC (polyvinyl chloride) are the culprits.

I bought one labeled "Non PVC" for my daughter at Christmas. I even stuck my nose in the package to be sure.

One study found that PVC shower curtains released up to 108 VOCs over 28 days, and seven of the compounds detected in the study are on the EPA's list of hazardous air pollutants. VOCs can damage the liver, central nervous system, respiratory system, reproductive system, and can contribute to developmental damage. Some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. On a day-to-day level, they can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, nausea and loss of coordination.

Still not convinced? Toluene and ethylbenzene, two of the chemicals released by the shower curtains tested, are on California's Proposition 65 list of chemicals known by the State to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. Under Prop. 65, businesses must not "knowingly and intentionally" expose people to these chemicals without giving "clear and reasonable warning."

High levels of phthalates were also found in the shower curtains examined—which is a problem because phthalates are a pretty unstable chemical. Phthalates migrate in the shower curtain itself, eventually making their way to the surface. When they evaporate into the air, they cling to dust in your home. Phthalates are linked to reproductive problems, including premature labor in pregnant women, early breast development in girls, and sperm damage in boys.

The study also found that some of the chemicals lingered in the air for more than four weeks, which is a long time to be breathing in toxins. And the concentrations were also a concern. The total VOCs detected were 16 times the U.S. Green Building Council's recommended guidelines.

Researchers did not look at the effect of heat and humidity on the shower curtains, but the authors did admit it is likely the heat and humidity would increase the levels of VOCs and other toxins being released into the air-making your showers all the more toxic.

Researchers went looking for policy on phasing out PVC and found out that many retailers are planning to offer more PVC-free shower curtains, but they won't be phasing them out completely.

Look for shower curtains made with PEVA, or polyethylene vinyl acetate, a stable vinyl product that is not associated with any health problems and does not contain any hazardous air pollutants. Where can you get it? Many of Ikea's shower curtains are made with PEVA. (Ikea banned PVC in 1991, so it's a great place to shop for shower curtains.)

If you want to completely eliminate the health concerns associated with vinyl and plastics, you can install a rain showerhead and an organic cotton shower curtain, without a liner. Rain showerheads drop water straight down without too much pressure, eliminating splash. (And they're oh-so-calming; try it once and you may never want to go back!)

If you can't live without a strong spray, your best option is to install glass doors rather than having a shower curtain. It's a little pricy, but consider it an investment in your health.