You turn on the water, pull back the curtain, soap up, rinse off — and feel clean and new as you dry yourself with your towel. But alas! Though you may feel all sparkly and refreshed, there’s a good chance that your morning shower has compromised your health.
First off, there’s the shower-curtain issue. A new report just released by the Center for Health, Environment & Justice indicates that chemicals used in vinyl shower curtains can cause serious damage to the liver as well as to the nervous, reproductive, and respiratory systems. You know that “new shower-curtain smell” you notice when you first hang your liner or the curtain with the cute pictures of smiling fish on it? It turns out that smell comes from the presence of deadly chemicals, including phthalates (hormone disruptors) and organotins (attack white blood cells), which are used to soften the plastic, as well as from an array of toxic organic compounds.
The curtains tested were all polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and came from Kmart, Bed, Bath, and Beyond, WalMart, Sears, and Target. “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,” says the above linked New York Sun article. Seven of those chemicals — toluene, ethylbenzene, phenol, methyl isobutyl ketone, xylene, acetophenone, and cumene — have been named dangerous air pollutants by the EPA.
Though the researchers are calling for a ban on the curtains and liners, and though consumers have for years been complaining of illness after sniffing the curtains, and animal studies have conclusively shown increased risk after exposure to PVC, the industry naturally dismisses all charges.
“The claims being made about the dangers of shower curtains are phantasmagorical. It’s ridiculous,” said Julie Vallese, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The medical community apparently chimes in their support: “If you don’t eat the shower curtain, it probably doesn’t pose a real risk, but if there’s no ventilation you’ll be exposed,” said Dr. Joel Forman of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
Oh come now, Dr. Forman. How many household bathrooms have great ventilation? In addition, phtalates and organotins tend to cling to dust and vapor molecules. You can bet those poisons are circulating through the air in the bath unless you have wide-open French doors at the back of your shower.
It would appear the simple solution is to toss the cheap vinyl and replace it with cloth or glass. Ah, but unfortunately, doing so won’t necessarily make your bath a safe haven.
As it turns out, you also have the water to worry about. If your water contains chlorine, you’re at risk because chlorine is extremely carcinogenic. While the dangers of “drinking” chlorinated water have certainly been the subject of great debate among researchers — the Council on Environmental Quality says that drinking chlorinated water increases cancer risk by 93%–it turns out showering with that water is even more hazardous to your health than drinking it.
As I’ve pointed out before, you absorb more chlorine through your skin in a 15-minute hot shower than you do by drinking eight glasses of that same water throughout the day. And beyond that, you absorb more chlorine through your lungs in the form of vapor during that morning shower than you do even through your skin. (Note: the heat from the water accelerates the vaporization.)
Bottom line: if you don’t have a whole house filter system, you need to get a quality water filter for your shower, as well as toss the plastic curtains. And then, while you’re at it, you need to rethink your soap and shampoo and the cleaning products you use to remove the scum in your tub to make sure those products don’t contain toxic ingredients. And also, you need to watch your step getting in an out of the tub — no joke — because bathtubs are the most dangerous place in the house for slips and falls. At last count back in 1975, the Consumer Product Safety Commission documented 110,000 annual bathtub and shower-related accidents, a rate that can only have climbed as the population has aged. And if you get a no-slip mat, better make sure it doesn’t off-gas toxins. But these are all subjects for future blogs.