That 'new shower curtain smell' gives off toxic chemicals, study finds By Tami Abdollah | Los Angeles Times 10:47 PM EDT, June 13, 2008 Vinyl shower curtains sold at major U.S. retailers emit toxic chemicals that have been linked to serious health problems, according to a report released Thursday by a national environmental organization. The curtains, sold at Bed Bath & Beyond, Kmart, Sears, Target and Wal-Mart, among other major retailers, contained high concentrations of chemicals that are linked to liver damage as well as damage to the central nervous, respiratory and reproductive systems, said researchers for the Virginia-based Center for Health, Environment & Justice. The organization commissioned the study about two years ago to determine what caused that "new shower curtain smell" familiar to most consumers. "This smell can make you feel sick, give you a headache, make you feel nauseous or (cause) other health effects," said Michael Schade, a co-author of the report. Researchers tested the chemical composition of five unopened polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, plastic shower curtains purchased from Bed Bath & Beyond, Kmart, Sears, Target and Wal-Mart. One of these curtains was then tested to determine the chemicals it released into the air. The study found that these shower curtains contained high concentrations of phthalates, which have been linked to reproductive effects, and varying concentrations of organotins, which are compounds based on tin and hydrocarbons. One of the curtains tested released measurable quantities of as many as 108 volatile organic compounds into the air, some of which persisted for nearly a month. Seven of these chemicals, which include toluene, ethylbenzene, phenol, methyl isobutyl ketone, xylene, acetophenone and cumene, have been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as hazardous air pollutants, said Stephen Lester, the Center for Health, Environment & Justice's science director and a co-author of the report. Potential health effects included developmental damage; and harm to the liver and the central nervous, respiratory and reproductive systems. Phthalates and organotins, which are not chemically bonded to the shower curtain, are often added to soften or otherwise enhance the curtain; they more easily evaporate into the air or cling to household dust, Lester said. So do volatile organic chemicals, Lester said. Vinyl chloride, which is a major building block of PVC, is a known human carcinogen that causes liver cancer, Lester said. Representatives of the companies marketing the shower curtains were not immediately available for comment Thursday. 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," Lester said. The tests did not replicate the heat and humidity in shower use, conditions that researchers believe would likely increase the concentration of released chemicals, according to the report. The EPA has tested vinyl shower curtains, and in 2002 said that it had found many of the same chemicals were released. Many companies that carry these vinyl shower curtains, including most of those whose products were used to compile the report, have been working to phase out the use of PVC curtains, Schade said. Lester said the test 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, and people in agencies like ours do the best we can with the tools we have. 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, and is aimed at protecting workers and work establishments, said Dimitri Stanich, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board. "It's one of those things," Stanich said, "the home is considered sacred, so there is no authority to address indoor air pollution. So these kind of things are allowed to emit indiscriminately at this point. So neither the federal government, nor the state or local level has any authority to address indoor air quality." Schade urged the government to reform its chemical policies. "It's clear that our federal chemical regulatory system is broken," said Schade, who is also the center's PVC program coordinator. Schade recommended consumers avoid buying PVC products, which can often be found in baby toys and building products. "It's grossly irresponsible for these manufacturers to take risks with our lives, and risks with ... our children," said Tanya Fields, who works with Sustainable South Bronx, a New York-based environmental justice group. The Center for Health, Environment & Justice sent a letter to 19 major retailers Thursday informing them of the new report and encouraging them to stop selling PVC products. "Most companies aren't aware of some of the risks these products entail," Lester said. "Once they're informed of this, they're in many cases ready to make changes and purchase alternative products."