When you buy a new shower curtain and open the package, that "new plastic" smell is actually toxic gases that have built up in the packaging and are being released into the air in your home.
Some people hang up the shower curtain and turn on a fan to air out the smell, while others hang their shower curtain outside until the smell is gone. This helps, but many of those chemical gases are detected for days, weeks and sometimes longer. Washing the shower curtain is a bad idea, since heat and detergents could release toxins more quickly. (Always follow care instructions when you're cleaning plastics or vinyl.) But not all shower curtains that contain vinyl are toxic. Vinyl is used with a lot of other chemicals to create a number of compounds. The culprit is polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-dubbed The Plastic Poison-and PVC is often listed as "vinyl" on packaging, making this whole issue a little complicated. As a rule of thumb, unless you absolutely know a shower curtain is not PVC, don't buy it.
In 2008, three researchers examined PVC shower curtains sold at five major retailers: Bed, Bath & Beyond, Kmart, Sears, Target and Wal-Mart. In their final report, Volatile Vinyl: The New Shower Curtain's Chemical Smell, the researchers found that the shower curtains "contain avoidable toxic chemicals including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), phthalates, organotins and metals." The study found that PVC shower curtains can release up to 108 VOCs, 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.
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.
Avoiding PVC Shower Curtains
Many retailers offer PVC-free shower curtains, but they aren't 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.
[Editor's Note: If you want to learn more about dangerous chemicals in women's health products and how to avoid them, click here to sign up for Naturally Savvy's Women's Health Get Healthy Challenge.]