Toxic Shower Curtains? What is in the new vinyl curtain smell?

Updated June 19, 2008


Have you ever opened a new vinyl shower curtain (or any other vinyl product for that matter) and been hit by a strong chemical odor?  It may give you a headache or make you nauseous, or you may be unaffected.  Do you wonder what causes that odor?  Do you wonder if there may be something more to that noxious odor?  Well, those shower curtains have now been tested, and it appears that odor is a toxic soup of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including the carcinogens toluene and ethylbenzene, phthalates and more.


I admit it – I don’t like vinyl (also called polyvinyl chloride or PVC) very much.  I try to avoid it as much as possible – even returning gifts that contain vinyl.  I always encourage people to skip PVC products.  PVC is considered the “most toxic” plastic.  From manufacture to disposal, PVC wreaks havoc.  If you want more on the toxic effects of PVC’s manufacture and disposal, I encourage you to read here.


Vinyl is used for an amazing variety of household products – from raincoats to baby dolls to waterproof mattress covers to lunch boxes to shower curtains to flooring, just to name a few.  In addition to the problems associated with manufacture and disposal, vinyl in consumer products also poses a problem. 


For some background, polyvinyl choride polymer is composed of 57% chloride and 43% ethylene and is a powder.  To this, stabilizers, plasticizers, lubricants, colorants and other compounds are added to make the vinyl compounds.  But, these stabilizers, plasticizers, lubricants and colorants may not be bound up in the polymer, and may be released, causing exposures during use.


I’ve talked previously about the potential risk of exposure to lead from vinyl items.  Just a brief refresher – for stabilization and/or coloration, lead, cadmium, tin, calcium and barium can be added.  Because these metals are not bound up in the polymer, they can migrate to the surface and be available for pick up.  Children mouthing or handling vinyl toys can be exposed to lead or cadmium if these compounds are used to stabilize the vinyl.


Another concern with vinyl is the use of plasticizers to make the vinyl soft and flexible.  Phthalates are usually used as plasticizers.  Phthalates are endocrine disruptors, and have been associated with early breast development and sperm damage, among other health concerns.  Phthalates have been of concern because of the potential for leaching when children mouth soft vinyl teethers and toys.  But phthalates may also off gas from vinyl products, and may contribute to asthma.


5 shower curtainsBut what about that smell from vinyl shower curtains?  Well, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) released a report today on its testing of 5 vinyl shower curtains.  The shower curtains were purchased at Wal-Mart, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Sears, Target and Kmart.  The CHEJ used laboratory testing to determine the makeup of 5 shower curtains it purchased.  It also placed a piece of one shower curtain in a closed environmental chamber for 28 days to determine what chemicals were offgassed or released from the shower curtain to the air.  The piece cut from the Wal-Mart HomeTrends Kids “Duck Pond” PVC shower curtain was intended to replicate a 70″ by 71″ shower curtain in a 6 X 6 X 8 bathroom.


In terms of the testing of what the vinyl curtains were made up of, all of them contained phthalates.  DEHP was the principal phthalate in 3 of the 5 shower curtains (25% by weight in the Wal-Mart curtain, 24% in the Bed, Bath & Beyond curtain and 16% in the Target curtin), and DINP was the principal phthalate in the other two curtains (39% by weight in the Sears curtain and 38% in the Kmart curtain).  Also, all of the shower curtains contained organotin, lead, cadmium, mercury or chromium.


But what is more startling and scary are the compounds that were released to the air in the closed environmental testing.  108 different VOCs wre released over the 28 days.  VOCs can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, and liver and kidney damage.  7 of the VOCs are on the EPA’s list of Hazardous Air Pollutants and 2 are on California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or birth defects and reproductive harm. 


Toluene, cyclohexanone, methyl isobutyl ketone, phenol and ehtylbenzene were detected in the greatest concentrations during the 28 day period.  The level of total VOCs was 16 times greater than the guidelines for indoor air quality set by the U.S. Building Green Council and the Washington State Indoor Air Quality Program.  The good news is that 40 VOCs were detected after 7 days, 16 VOCs were detected after 14 days, 11 VOCs are 21 days and only 4 after 28 days.   So, if you have an older vinyl shower curtain, the VOCs may have mostly offgassed, although phthalates and perhaps other compounds may be released as the product deteriorates and wears.


The study was not able to detect phthalates in the small environmental chamber.  The study authors believed this was due to the fact that they could not achieve the low detection limits necessarily.  The study’s detection limits were 7.4 micrograms per cubic meter, well above the levels detected in other offgassing studies.  But, studies have shown offgassing of phthalates from vinyl products, and the study authors believe that the same results occur from vinyl shower curtains given the concentrations of phthalates detected in the shower curtains.


So, what’s the meaning of this?  New vinyl shower curtains appear to release dangerous volatile organic compounds.  They also contain phthalates, and these may be relased too.  Further, since organotin or other tin compounds were present in all of the vinyl shower curtains, and since some organotins may affect the central nervous system, skin, liver, immune system and reproductive system, the study authors believe that the release of organotins needs to be investigated.  The release of these compounds pollutes the indoor air and are linked to adverse health effects, including asthma.


Okay, so what’s a Smart Mama to do?  SKIP vinyl!  Lots of other options are available.  Lots of textile fabrics are available.  If you want a plastic shower curtain, look for ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) or polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA), both of which are better than PVC (although a green mama may want to get an organic fiber shower curtain). 


IKEA eliminated PVC shower curtains 11 years ago.  IKEA has liners and curtains for just over $1 if you are looking for a replacement.  Marks and Spencer, as of Spring 2008, does not sell PVC shower curtains.  Macys, Target, Walmart and Kmart all have non-vinyl options you can use too.

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