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PVC shower curtains release harmful chemicals

Environmental advocates on June 12 issued a call for Wal-Mart and other retailers to immediately phase out PVC shower curtains and for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to recall PVC shower curtains from store shelves after the study found that high concentrations of some VOCs and other toxic chemicals are released into the air over a period of one month.

The two-phase study was sponsored by the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ), a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing environmental health hazards. Shower curtains used for the testing were purchased from Bed Bath & Beyond, Kmart, Sears, Target, and Wal-Mart. Phase one of the study measured several hazardous chemicals in five of the PVC shower curtains present at the time of purchase. Phase two measured the concentration of VOCs which continued to release from a shower curtain up to twenty-eight days after a consumer started using it in the home.

CHEJ says in a statement that shower curtains made of PVC plastic contain many harmful chemicals including VOCs, phthalates, and organotins, and that these PVC curtains are potentially toxic to the health of consumers.

"Vinyl shower curtains and shower curtain liners release chemicals into the home that are most easily identified by that "new shower curtain smell" and are routinely sold at major retail outlets. Results of this study show that PVC shower curtains can release toxic chemicals into the air that may lead to adverse health effects including respiratory irritation, central nervous system, liver and kidney damage, nausea, headaches and loss of coordination," the organization states in its news release.

The key findings of the study include the following cited in verbatim from a CHEJ press release:

#  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.

"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," said CHEJ Science Director and report co-author Stephen Lester.

Lester on June 10 testified at the U.S. House Energy and Commerce committee hearing on phthalates and bisphenol A in consumer products such as PVC shower curtains.

Early in 1991, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) detected decane in a new PVC shower curtain and in 2002 the agency also found toluene, phenol, ethylbenzene and methul isobutyl ketone in PVC shower curtains. The EPA study found elevated levels of these chemical evident beyond one month. These findings are similar to what was found in the CHEJ study.

"Six years after the EPA found that PVC shower curtains continue to release toxic chemicals into the air we breathe for a month or longer, our study shows that nothing has changed. Something must be done to protect consumers from any potential harm these toxic chemicals cause. Wal-Mart and other retailers need to phase out these toxic chemicals. As Congress is considering a variety of chemical policy reforms, it must address the reality that no legal authority currently exists to enable the federal government to regulate consumer products which release toxic chemicals into the air inside our homes - air our children breathe every day," said CHEJ founder and Executive Director Lois Gibbs.

The United States produces nearly 15 billion pounds of PVC annually, according to the CHEJ. Some chemicals used to make the soft PVC plastic including phthalate s , Vinyl chloride monomer, and byproduct dioxins are of serious concern to human health and the environment. Phthalates can cause reproductive problems including shorter pregnancy duration and sperm damage in males; vinyl chloride, recognized by the EPA as a carcinogen, can cause a rare form of liver cancer and damage the liver and central nervous system; dioxins can suppress the immune system and cause reproductive disorders, a variety of cancers, and endometriosis.

The key symptoms associated with VOC exposure include eye irritation, nose and throat discomfort, difficulty breathing, allergic skin reaction, headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, dizziness, and nose bleeding, according to the CHEJ.

"The brain is a major target for VOCs, causing 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. Since there are safe alternatives to vinyl shower curtains, such exposures should always be avoided," said David O. Carpenter, M.D., of the Institute for Health & The Environment at the University at Albany, SUNY.

The CHEJ and other organizations recommend the following to protect consumers, workers & communities from PVC:

*  The Federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is 30 years old and must be updated to regulate consumer products which contribute to indoor air pollution and cause health harm.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission should immediately recall all PVC shower curtains from store shelves.

*  Manufactures and retailers should switch to safer products such as organic cotton shower curtains.

*  Government at all levels should act quickly to ban the use of PVC in shower curtains.

* Consumers should avoid purchasing shower curtains made with PVC, and should not buy shower curtains that are not labeled with their content.


For more information, read the full report, Volatile Vinyl: The New Shower Curtain's Chemical Smell 

By Ben Wasserman, and edited by Heather Kelley
Jun 13, 2008 - 9:29:22 AM