When you buy new vinyl curtains or liners, you’ll smell their characteristic plastic smell.
This smell, while seemingly harmless, is the release of chemicals that build up in the curtains’ packaging. Inhaling these chemicals is harmful to your health as it has been proven to cause various health problems such as cancer.
Vinyl curtains are toxic due to the presence of PVC (polyvinyl chloride). PVC contains various chemicals such as phthalates, metals, organotins, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
These chemicals have various side effects such as headaches, nausea, skin irritation, liver and kidney damage. The reproductive, respiratory and central nervous systems may also be affected.
For this reason, you should consider changing the curtains in your home and generally getting rid of the plastic in your household as they all contain the toxic PVC.
This article explains the level of toxicity in vinyl curtains and liners and offers safe alternatives to the same.
Toxins in Vinyl Curtains and their Effects
A 2008 study titled Volatile Vinyl: The New Shower Curtain’s Chemical Smell, the research team set out to study the levels and type of chemicals found in shower curtains.
The curtains chosen were from known outlets such as Wal-Mart, Sears, Kmart, Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond.
The results of the study pointed to shower curtains having highly toxic chemicals some of which have been listed by the EPA as hazardous air pollutants. Among the chemicals found in these curtains include phthalates, metals, organotins, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
These chemicals can be detected in the air for quite a while after buying and unpacking the curtains in your home.
In the study above, these toxins were still being detected weeks after the curtain had been opened from its package (108 VOCs for the first 28 days, 40 VOCs the following week, 16 VOCs the following two weeks, 11 VOCs the 3rd week, and 4 VOCs the 4th week).
Among the known effects of these chemicals include the following:
These are organic chemicals that have a low boiling point which causes them to have a high vapor pressure. Due to this trait, they easily evaporate or sublimate to the environment even at low temperatures.
They are found in paints and other products with vinyl such as the vinyl curtains and liners in your bathroom. They include formaldehyde, perchloroethylene, benzene, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
1. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Vinyl shower curtains have about 108 of these VOCs with differing effects on the body. Among their effects include:
- Irritation of the throat, nose, and eyes
- Loss of coordination
- Liver damage
- Kidney damage
- Damage to the central nervous system
- Various types of cancers
When exposed to this group of chemicals, the symptoms include the following:
- Discomfort in the nose and the throat
- Conjunctival irritation
- Dyspnea (breathing difficulties)
- Allergic skin reactions
- Nose bleeding
- Low levels of the cholinesterase serum
The severity of the symptoms and effects of the chemicals depends on the level of exposure to them. The VOCs noted in the study described above were up to 16 times what the U.S. Green Building Council recommends.
Phthalates are chemicals that are mainly used as plasticizers as they’re added to plastic materials to increase their transparency, longevity, flexibility, and durability.
They’re also used to soften PVC materials such as the vinyl curtains in question.
There are almost 30 commonly used phthalates such as dimethyl phthalate and diethyl phthalate. These chemicals are highly volatile and thus easily move from curtains and liners into the surrounding air.
The good news is that they’re also highly photodegradable, biodegradable and anaerobically degradable making them easy to eliminate from the environment.
Even with their high levels of degradability, these chemicals easily get into the body of the people in the household through their skin, breathing and even in food. It’s the same reason you’re discouraged from eating hot foods from plastic utensils.
The effects of phthalates on the body include the following:
- Endocrine system disruption
- Lowers male fertility levels
- Insulin resistance
- Breast cancer
- Hampers immune functions
- Metabolic disorders
These effects and their severity will depend on how much you’re exposed to the phthalates.
These are tin-based compounds with hydrocarbons. They are added to PVC items as stabilizers as they suppress degradation. They also find use as industrial biocides such as anti-fungal and anti-biofouling agents.
Many studies on the toxicity of organotins have compared them to hydrogen cyanide in their activities. This is because they easily become toxic when exposed to light (phototoxic) and other conditions.
Other effects on the human body include:
- Skin lesions
- Eye irritation
- Mucus irritation
- Loss of memory
- Liver damage
- Death in some cases
- Nervous system damage
A lot of studies have been done on organotins with the unanimous decision being that they’re very dangerous to both humans and animals. As such, your pets aren’t safe from them either.
Metals are used in a compound form to stabilize PVC materials such as vinyl curtains and liners. Among the metals used are barium, cadmium, zinc, calcium, and lead.
These metals are mixed in the compound form to maintain the texture and feel of the curtains and generally maintain their chemical composition.
While a lot of changes have been made to provide safe materials for use in this regard, all the metals and their compounds used here have negative health effects for those they come into contact with.
These metals are known to cause the following effects on the body:
- Death in some cases
- Breathing difficulties
- Stomach irritation
- Increased blood pressure
- Muscle weakness
- Heart rhythm changes
- Liver and brain swelling
- Heart and kidney damage
- Damage to the bones
- Abdominal pain
- Memory loss
- Tingling in the hands and feet
- Loss of appetite
If you notice any of these signs, it could be due to the exposure to the chemicals in the vinyl curtains and liners.
How to Prevent the Side Effects of Vinyl Curtains
Having learned of the negative effects of vinyl curtains in your home, you need to find a solution that keeps you safe from them.
While you may have been advised to wash them before use, this doesn’t do much in reducing the effects.
Instead, you should go for other curtain and liner materials for your bathroom. Given that these curtains and liners should be waterproof, you should consider the following materials with similar qualities but without the toxins:
Specific types of cotton fabric can be used as shower curtains thus giving you a chance to avoid the chemicals found in vinyl materials.
For this to be possible, the fabric has to be tightly woven to keep the water from soaking into the curtain. Cotton is also biodegradable and machine washable making it easy to keep clean and dispose of it.
However, it can absorb water and, if not dried properly, will develop mildew and mold.
2. Hemp Shower Curtains
Hemp shower curtains come from the hemp plant and don’t need vinyl to make it waterproof. To make the curtain waterproof, the hemp fabric is tightly woven together. Even when it absorbs some of the water, it quickly dries up.
You also get the benefit of hemp being naturally resistant to fungi and bacteria. This will keep at bay any infections you might run into in the bathroom area. Their high level of strength is also something to take note of.
Hemp curtains don’t have any of the chemicals found in vinyl curtains. Besides that, they are machine washable and biodegradable. This means you can safely throw them away at the end of their useful life.
Their only downside is that they cost more than vinyl curtains and liners. Given their advantages, however, the price is justified.
Linen is another naturally-occurring material that can serve well as a shower curtain. Given that linen can easily develop mildew and mold, you should use a liner to keep it free of moisture.
On its own, linen will absorb water and take a while to dry off. However, if you dry it out properly, you’ll have a good and clean curtain in no time. It’s also aided by the fact that it’s biodegradable and machine washable.
Polyester has some traits which make it a far much better option to vinyl when it comes to shower curtains.
It’s more water repellent, dries faster and is machine washable. It has a few chemicals, however, but the amount isn’t as much of a concern as it is in vinyl materials.
Polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA) is an alternative to PVC without the chlorine compound in it. This makes it less toxic than PVC but without compromising on the quality of the material in terms of water resistance.
This material isn’t very much better than PVC given that it still has the other chemicals and compounds found in PVC.
Another option for a good shower curtain is nylon. Its qualities fall between those of cotton and those of hemp or cotton.
It’s resistant to water and will dry out quite fast after a shower. It also doesn’t allow the growth of mold and mildew easily. Nylon, however, has some of the chemicals found in vinyl and thus not the safest of options.
With these options, you can be sure that your bathroom curtains will not harm your household as they’ll be free of harmful chemicals. Even with vinyl curtains having the best qualities for areas with water such as the bathroom, the chemicals they have and their effects are not worth it.
You’re thus better off with the alternatives given above.