Vinyl Shower Curtains May Hide Toxic Danger

Those vinyl shower curtains that can be found at virtually every major US retailers emit dangerous and <"">toxic chemicals linked to serious health problems; this, according to a report just released by a national environmental organization.  The curtains contained high concentrations of chemicals associated with liver damage and damage to the central nervous, respiratory, and reproductive systems, according to researchers for Virginia-based Center for Health, Environment & Justice, which commissioned the study about two years ago to determine what caused that “new shower curtain smell.”   According to Michael Schade, report co-author, “This smell can make you feel sick, give you a headache, make you feel nauseous, or (cause) other health effects.”

Researchers tested the chemical composition of five unopened polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic shower curtains purchased from Bed Bath & Beyond, Kmart, Sears, Target, and Wal-Mart, with a test that included determining the chemicals released into the air.  The study revealed the curtains contain high concentrations of phthalates. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tested vinyl shower curtains in 2002 and found many of the same chemicals were released.

Phthalates have been linked to reproductive effects as well as varying concentrations of organotins, compounds based on tin and hydrocarbons.  One of the curtains tested released as many as 108 volatile organic compounds, some of which persisted for about a month and include toluene, ethylbenzene, phenol, methyl isobutyl ketone, xylene, acetophenone, and cumene, and have been identified by the EPA as hazardous air pollutants, said Stephen Lester, the Center for Health, Environment & Justice’s science director and a report co-author.  Little information on toxicity is available for 86 of the 108 chemicals detected in the curtains, Lester said.

”Nobody really looked to see what these chemicals were or whether they were toxic and what risk they posed.”

Phthalates and organotins, are not chemically bonded to the shower curtain, but added to soften or enhance the curtain.  According to Lester, the chemicals evaporate into the air or cling to household dust as do volatile organic chemicals such as vinyl chloride, a major PVC component and known human carcinogen that causes liver cancer.  Although the research did not reproduce the heat and humidity found in the shower, researchers believe those conditions would increase the concentration of released chemicals.

Lester said the research draws attention to the lack of government regulations or health-based guidelines governing indoor air pollutants.  “The EPA does not regulate indoor air, period,” said Barbara Spark, the indoor air program coordinator for the EPA’s Pacific Southwest region.  “Why?  Because we have not been given that authority by the Congress….  People get the laws they vote for … but there are very powerful interests on each side who have a say in who gets a say.”

Indoor air pollution regulation falls under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) which protects workers and work establishments, said Dimitri Stanich, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, “… there is no authority to address indoor air pollution.  So these kind of things are allowed to emit indiscriminately at this point.”

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