Don’t Spend Too Much Time in Your Shower—You Might Get Sick

The Center for Health, Environment & Justice, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing environmental health harms caused by chemical threats, recently released a report stating that shower curtains made with PVC contain numerous harmful chemicals including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), phthalates (think CA toys), and organotins. These ubiquitous shower curtains are likely to have adverse effects on the nervous, respiratory and reproductive systems.

I don’t have enough hands to count the number of those shower curtains I’ve used in my brief 23 years, but it’s a lot. I’m happy to say I switched to cloth a few months ago after having a conversation about the possible effects of continued exposure to these shower curtains with my friend John Laumer of treehugger.com. I’m glad to see our fears were not confounded. The smell you most often associate with the excitement of a new product is actually a sign of off-gassing, a process by which harmful toxins become airborne through evaporation. There should be no rejoicing when this smell is encountered.

Some interesting findings from the study:

  • 108 different volatile organic compounds were released from the shower curtain into the air over twenty-eight days.
  • After one week, 40 different VOCs were detected in the air; after two weeks, 16 VOCS; after three weeks 11 VOCs and; after four weeks, 4 VOCs.
  • The level of Total VOCs measured was over 16 times greater than the recommended guidelines for indoor air quality established by the U.S. Green Building Council, violating these guidelines for seven days.
  • Just one new PVC shower curtain will release Total VOCs that exceed the typical Total VOCs residential level for four days.
  • The concentration of Total VOCs in the Wal-Mart tested shower curtain was so high that the analytical equipment was saturated and further testing had to be halted so that lab equipment would not be damaged.
  • All five curtains tested in phase one contained phthalates DEHP and DINP, chemicals banned in children’s toys in California, Washington, and the European Union.
  • This testing did not replicate temperature and humidity conditions typically found in a shower, which would likely increase the concentrations of volatile pollutants released from a PVC curtain into the air of a bathroom; concentrations of these chemicals are likely to be even greater during and after a shower than those reported in this study. source

According to one of the study’s lead scientists, Stephen Lester, many of the VOCs emitted from the curtains have been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as hazardous air pollutants (source). Phthalates and organitins are often used as a softening agents and evaporate or cling to household dust more easily than the chemicals in the curtains themselves (source). All in all the products are releasing a mess of air pollutants that you and I are exposed to every time we go into the bathroom or brush our teeth and this exposure is compounded when we opt for a hot shower.

Unfortunately the EPA does not have the power to regulate indoor air quality (source). According to the press release about the study, the EPA has known about the harmful properties of PVC shower curtains for many years and we have still seen no changes. PVC is the second largest commodity plastic in production in the world today; with nearly 15 billion pounds being produced annually in the U.S (source). Maybe this explains it: It’s cheap.

I already know what health risks I face by going outside, but now I’ve got to be concerned about what I’m breathing in my apartment. Another kind gift from the industrial complex, and a reason to look at my home life a little differently: Is that fresh smell seeping from my dishwasher killing me? Ignorance is bliss, or maybe just ignorance.

If you’re disturbed like me, sign this petition

Photo source: j.gresham at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

  1. Erika Rathje

    That’s another reason why I’m so happy to have had glass shower doors my entire life, even in our basement suite. (The house is newer and someone had the sense to install glass, yet I cannot say the same for my sister’s newer apartment!) Now if only the floor weren’t linoleum…

  2. lisetrise

    Amazing,isn’t it? With all of the regulations we face, Indoor Air Quality can be dangerous and yet nothing much is done about it.

    This reminds me of the experiment with mice and new carpeting …..the mice died while breathing it!(VOCs)

    I haven’t bought a new shower curtain in years….the smell can about knock you off your feet! We just keep reusing the old one.

    We are exposed to so many products with VOCs – many we don’t even know about…
    the following page lists a number of them…

    Very interesting article. I’m glad I found your blog.

    Can you tell us what kind of cloth curtain you recommend?


  3. Make Green Come True

    A couple weeks ago one of my friends called me to ask about which plastics were safe – they were shower curtain shopping and had read an article on makegreencometrue.com about safe types of plastics and wanted to see whether they were purchasing a safe kind. It’s really sad that common household products can be harmful to ones health.

  4. Don

    Interesting and informatiove article! I have signed your petition.

    A quick way to find out what your can save by cutting back on shower times to: http://www.ShowerManager.com and hit the conservation calculator link.

    Hundreds of dollars can be saved annually by cutting back shower times an average of 5 minutes.

    We will now link this message from our web site

  5. Tim Wilcox @ KC Precision Glass

    This is really great information that I wish more households knew about. I would like to take the tests further – carpets, rugs, towels, trash bags, dryer sheets – to see what other normal household materials are slowly poisoning us and our families.

    This is the kind of information that would really push people to change what they drink out of, what they use to filter water, filter air, and more.

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