Experts Say Shower Curtains Could Be Causing Serious Harm To Our Health

You hop into the shower, pull the curtain across the tub and turn the water on. All of this seems normal, but there could be danger lurking. You might have selected a shower curtain that comprises polyvinyl chloride plastic, or PVC – and research has shown that this material can have adverse effects on your health.

You have your shower curtain in place for a reason. The material keeps water in while you shower, thus preventing leaks onto your bathroom floor. Not only is this a convenience for you – no post-wash mopping up – but it’s also a matter of safety. You could easily slip and fall on such a puddle.

Although it appears to be keeping you safe, that very same waterproof sheet hanging in your bathroom could in fact be causing you harm. A study by the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ) uncovered the truth about shower curtains made from PVC – and the reality is that they can do as much harm as good.

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Perhaps you’ve purchased a sleek, shiny shower curtain for your bathroom. After you pulled it from its packaging and unfurled it, you may have noticed that it had a strong plasticky scent. Well, this is one sign that you could be putting your health at risk simply by putting a shower curtain in your bathroom. Through their study, CHEJ researchers found a lengthy list of side effects associated with this type of manufactured material.

Lois Gibbs became an environmental activist when she headed a campaign to move hundreds of people away from the hazardous waste present in their Niagara Falls, New York, district. That experience inspired her to establish CHEJ in 1981, and the foundation continues to pursue her mission.

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CHEJ has gone on to become one of the United States’ leaders in its field, especially in grassroots efforts to engender change. The group has a simple vision to create eco-friendly districts in which all Americans can live. It makes sense, then, that CHEJ would investigate the safety of what’s inside of our homes, too.

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With its 2008 study into shower curtains, CHEJ became the only non-governmental organization at the time to have evaluated these products – particularly those made of PVC. The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, oversaw the first investigation into this material in 1991. It sought to uncover any emissions that came from PVC in new shower curtains.

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The EPA discovered that such PVC curtains contained a volatile organic compound (VOC) called decane. VOCs are gaseous substances that enter the air by way of a liquid or solid. In most instances, the concentration of VOCs is considerably greater inside homes than outside, according to the EPA.

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This makes sense, considering how many everyday products contain VOCs. Certain disinfectants, cleaning agents, paints, cosmetics, crafting materials and other common items in people’s homes include VOCs. And, when we use these solutions, they release the organic gases into the air.

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More than a decade later, the EPA renewed its VOC-centric research into bathroom curtains made of PVC. This time, it looked for a quartet of potential emissions: phenol, toluene, ethylbenzene and methyl isobutyl ketone. A month into the study of the shower curtain, all four of these VOCs lingered in the surrounding air.

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Of course, as products and manufacturing methods change, so, too, do the emissions that they may give off. So in the case of PVC, it was important for CHEJ to continue studying the substance’s long-term effects, especially considering how widely used the plastic material was at the time.

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Indeed, when CHEJ published the results of its study, PVC stood as the world’s second-most widely manufactured commodity plastic. As of 2008, the United States alone produced almost 15 billion pounds of it each year. Ten years later, the world created 44 million metric tons of PVC annually, which equates to almost 100 billion pounds.

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Experts predict that that number will rise to almost 60 million metric tons by 2025. And as PVC has become more and more pervasive in societies the world over, CHEJ’s 2008 study has proven to be a vital piece of information regarding the safety of such a commonplace material.

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At the time of CHEJ’s investigation, people began to voice their concerns about the prevalence of PVC and its inclusion of VOCs. The study, published in Occupational Health & Safety magazine, stated, “Across the nation many consumer and environmental health organizations join CHEJ and other experts in calling for safeguards to prevent harm from exposure [to the material].”

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As a result of such concerns, the CHEJ team embarked on a two-part study into PVC shower curtains and the amount of VOCs they released, if any. Their findings were surprising, to say the least. Among their key discoveries was the fact that the bathroom accessory emitted more than 100 different VOCs over a four-week stretch.

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The CHEJ researchers found that the number of VOCs present did subside over time, however. After seven days, 40 still lingered. Another week later, that number dropped to 16, and it hit 11 on three weeks. At the end of the 28-day study, there were only a quartet of VOCs still present in the air.

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Still, the total number of VOCs counted – 108 in all – was a whopping 16 times higher than the levels the U.S. Green Building Council had indicated were necessary for preserving indoor air quality. And the PVC shower curtain’s emitted VOCs remained above this benchmark for the first week that it was unsealed.

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The PVC-based curtain – purchased from Wal-Mart – even threw CHEJ’s testing materials for a loop. The study reads, “The concentration of total VOCs… was so high that the analytical equipment was saturated and further testing had to be halted so that lab equipment would not be damaged.”

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Moreover, many of the VOCs pinpointed by the CHEJ study had been noted in the previous EPA-led examinations of PVC materials. These found that levels of phenol, toluene, ethylbenzene and methyl isobutyl – the focal VOCs of the 2002 study – had all lingered for a month. In fact, they were four of the five most prevalent compounds counted by the CHEJ researchers.

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On top of that, CHEJ wrote that its study hadn’t reproduced some of the normal characteristics of a bathroom – namely, the study space was neither warm nor steamy. And typical bathroom heat and humidity would only serve to increase the number of VOCs present, both during and after a shower.

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Although the investigation focused on VOCs, the CHEJ team found more than just those questionable compounds within the PVC shower curtains. The researchers reported that organotins and phthalates were also present in the plasticky material, and those chemicals were just as noteworthy as the long-lingering gases emitted from it.

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At the time of the study’s publication Stephen Lester, science director at CHEJ, issued a warning about PVC-inclusive shower curtains to those who used them. He said, “The release of so many volatile organic compounds… raises serious questions about the risks PVC shower curtains pose to families, especially young children exposed to these vapors.”

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Lester advised, “Every effort should be made to eliminate PVC shower curtains from homes and to replace them with safer alternatives.” The CHEJ science director had good reason for recommending such a move – VOCs had and continue to have an adverse effect on our health in a number of unexpected ways.

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The study revealed that there were risks at every stage of PVC’s life cycle. The manufacturing process requires a trio of toxic substances: chlorine gas, which creates ethylene dichloride (EDC), and vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) that’s made in turn from the EDC. The VCM becomes the PVC material – and both it and its predecessor, EDC, are incredibly harmful to humans.

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For example, VCM can bring about cancer of the liver that also harms the central nervous system. The creation of PVC emits dioxins as well, and they, too, may lead to cancer. In addition, these chemicals are capable of damaging people’s reproductive and immune systems.

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Nonetheless, all of this happens before the PVC ends up in a shower curtain hanging in someone’s bathroom. At that point, though, the danger hasn’t subsided – PVC remains a toxic chemical and one that can cause a slew of unsettling side effects. Among the major symptoms of VOC exposure are irritated eyes, as well as throat or nose problems.

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Some people also experience sickness and headaches, in addition to impaired coordination. Others have trouble breathing, or they develop problems with their skin. Tiredness and nosebleeds also count as major VOC-rooted ailments reported after exposure to a PVC shower curtain.

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The University at Albany’s David O. Carpenter, M.D., explained how VOCs work. He said at the time, “The brain is a major target for VOCs, causing everything from headache and loss of concentration to learning disabilities in children whose mothers were exposed before their birth, as shown in a recent Canadian study.”

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On that note, PVC has proven particularly damaging to children. It isn’t just VOCs that are responsible for the dangers, either. PVC can contain mercury, lead and cadmium, as well as the aforementioned phthalates, VCM and EDC. Altogether, this combination of chemicals has links to cancer, asthma, obesity and learning disabilities.

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The phthalates included in PVC are harmful to little ones as well. Manufacturers add them so that the resulting material has pliability, but these substances have ties to the previously mentioned health risks for kids: cancer, asthma, obesity and developmental issues. The U.S. government has voted to remove PVC from toys for this reason, but it’s still present in household and building materials.

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For example, in 2012 experts researched the effects that phthalate-inclusive vinyl floors had on children. Their study found that kids living with this material on the ground had double the usual chance of developing autism. As such, a link to learning and developmental disabilities was forged.

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Kids are particularly at risk of the effects of PVC because of how early proximity to it can occur. A pregnant mom who comes into contact with the VOCs in the material can unwittingly expose her unborn baby to the toxins. Then, once they’re born, young children can take in the compounds via formula or breast-feeding.

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And this is precisely how PVC can affect kids’ learning further down the line. Fetuses and then infants go through ultra-fast brain growth. So, if they’re ingesting chemicals that can halt that process, it can have detrimental effects. Even a tiny amount of exposure can have big repercussions on such small bodies.

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And, of course, these dangers don’t just arise from PVC-based shower curtains or vinyl floors. You may even know the names of some commonplace VOCs in households. Formaldehyde is the most prevalent, appearing in certain plastics and lacquers. Wallpaper and polish may contain acetone, another VOC.

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In addition, the paint on your walls may contain benzene or toluene, two more common VOCs. Dish soap and laundry detergent could have ethanol in it. Even chlorinated tap water may include carbon disulfide, yet another everyday VOC that makes your home a little less safe for you and your family.

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Thankfully, CHEJ’s work highlighted the dangers that PVC shower curtains – among other PVC-inclusive products – continue to pose. So, since then, firms and even national governments have reacted by implementing regulations that make customers and constituents safer. For instance, 60 Spanish metropolises have achieved zero-PVC status, and companies including Apple, IKEA and Nike have announced plans to lower or even eliminate the material from their products.

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Bans have come to include phthalates, too. In the United States, for example, the Consumer Product Safety Commission negotiated a voluntary deal with manufacturers in 1998 to eliminate the compound from the likes of teethers and rattles. Ten years later, the country outlawed the inclusion of phthalates in toys.

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A number of countries outside of the U.S. have prohibited the use of PVC-based packaging. They’ve also forced the removal of it – and all its VOCs – from food containers and related implements. Hospitals have ordered it gone from their premises, as it can have an adverse effect on infants – particularly those who are already sick.

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You can do your part to remove VOCs from your home by knowing precisely what it is that you’re buying. Check the label when you buy building or decorative supplies, for example. These will state “Low VOCs” if they’ve been reformulated for your safety. You’ll want to invest in these types of products if possible.

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As for your shower curtain, try to find something PVC-free – and, if it’s not labeled as such, don’t buy it. Fortunately, with a little research on your part, it isn’t impossible to keep many VOCs out of your home. As co-author of the CHEJ’s 2008 report Michael Schade put it, “The good news is that families can take simple steps to protect their health by avoiding shower curtains made with PVC and choosing healthier products.”

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