A US health and environment group is calling for major retailers such as Wal-Mart to phase out PVC shower curtains, and for the authorities to recall the products from sale because a laboratory study showed they released toxic chemicals into the air.
The Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ), a non-profit organization that works to prevent threats to health posed by chemicals in the environment, has just released the results of a study that found shower curtains made with the plastic polyvinyl chloride (often called PVC or vinyl), harbour many chemicals that can harm human health, including a number of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), phthalates and organotins. The study was co-sponsored by the Work Group for Safe Markets.
CHEJ said in a statement to the press that major retailers routinely sell shower curtains and liners made of vinyl, which can usually be identified from their characteristic “new shower curtain smell” produced by chemicals as they are released into the environment.
The watchdog group said that the toxic chemicals released from PVC shower curtains can lead to serious health problems including nausea and headaches; respiratory irritation; damage to the central nervous system, liver and kidneys; and loss of coordination.
The CHEJ and other environmental health and consumer groups are calling for safeguards to stop people getting harmed from being exposed to toxic PVC shower curtains.
For the study, the CHEJ tested new shower curtains bought from Bed Bath & Beyond, Kmart, Sears, Target and Wal-Mart. The study was in two phases. In phase 1 the investigators tested the concentration of several hazardous chemicals in five of the shower curtains at the time they were bought. In phase 2, the investigators measured the levels of VOCs in the curtains for up to 28 days after they have been hung up.
The report’s main findings were:
- 108 different VOCs were released into the air over 28 days.
- After 1 week, 40 different VOCs were detected in the air, after 2 weeks, 16 VOCs, after 2 weeks, 11 VOCs, after 4 weeks, 4 VOCs.
- For a period of 7 days, the total VOC level was over 16 times the recommended guideline for indoor air quality as given by the US Green Building Council.
- One new curtain releases more VOCs than a typical residence does over four days.
- The Wal-Mart curtain had so much total VOC that it saturated the analytical equipment and caused the investigators to switch it off so it would not be damaged.
- All 5 curtains tested in phase 1 contained phthalates DEHP and DINP, chemicals that California, Washington, and the European Union have banned from children’s toys .
The investigators said the tests did not simulate the exact conditions typically found in a shower, such as temperature and humidity, but if they had, they suggest the results would have shown greater concentrations of chemicals.
CHEJ Science Director and report co-author, Stephen Lester, said:
“The release of so many volatile organic compounds, many of which are toxic, raises serious questions about the risks PVC shower curtains pose to families, especially young children exposed to these vapors.”
“Every effort should be made to eliminate PVC shower curtains from homes and to replace them with safer alternatives,” he added.
Lester has recently testified at the US House Energy and Commerce committee hearing on phthalates and bisphenol A and how the market is moving away from using phthalates in consumer products, including PVC shower curtains.
The CHEJ said that 7 of the chemicals found in the shower curtains are classified as hazardous air pollutants by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Air Act.
Phthalates have been linked to reproductive problems including sperm damage in men and shorter pregnancies.
VOCs can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, nausea, loss of coordination and headaches. According to Dr David O Carpenter, from the Institute for Health & The Environment at the University at Albany, State University of New York, “the brain is a major target for VOCs”, where they can cause 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”.
The CHEJ advises consumers not to purchase shower curtains made with PVC, and to avoid shower curtains that have no label showing what they are made of.
Many retailers such as Bed Bath and Beyond, Marks and Spencer, Ikea, JC Penney, Sears/Kmart, Macys, and Target are planning to offer more PVC-free shower curtains, but the only ones that plan eventually to have 100 percent PVC-free curtains are Ikea and Marks and Spencer.
Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD