Fear that new _____ smell.

That “new car smell” is, in fact, the smell of cancer. The adhesives and plastics all emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), dozens in all, including benzene, a carcinogen. A new study shows that the same is true of new shower curtains. They’re made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and offgas dozens of VOCs and even phthalates into your bathroom. Kmart, Target, and Sears have all said they’re going to phase out PVC-based shower curtains. Concerned about PVC, I switched to a fabric curtain liner a couple of years ago, and it’s a fine substitute. And I don’t even miss that new shower curtain smell.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

16 replies on “Fear that new _____ smell.”

  1. For my son’s 16th birthday, my brother-in-law gave my son an old clunker. He gave him a box that contained the title to a 1983 Dodge Colt, the keys, a can of new car scent (you can buy the stuff at Autozone) and a screwdriver (so that if the car broke down, he could take off the plates and start walking).

  2. So…did Dad & Mom pony up the rest of the toolkit to help the boy keep the car running? The ’83 Dodge (Mitsubishi)Colt was a pretty well designed, fuel-efficient car with a simple (carburetted) engine and mechanical systems. With any luck the young driver could learn a lot about automobiles, save some money, develop a bunch of useful mechanical skills, and trouble-shooting self-confidence.

  3. The standard, as I understand it, is to use PVC pipes only for nonpotable water. I think a lot of states and localities actually prohibit the use of PVC pipe for hot water, though I think that’s for the very basic concern that it melts at relatively slow temperatures.

  4. PVC is fine for water lines in residential construction, and you’ll find it in the vast majority of homes built in the last 20 or so years. Hot water is typically under 140 degrees, which is where PVC is rated for water lines. I don’t recall what the melting point is for PVC, but I know that it is considerably higher than 140F. That said, PVC isn’t a good choice for hot water.

  5. I know about not using PVC for hot water: that’s what CPVC is for, after all. But as Pub says, not using it for drinkable water? It’s used all the time. And, more importantly, my whole fish tank system uses PVC extensively, which perhaps is more what I care about. :)

  6. Yes, and PVC is used all the time for shower curtains, too — that’s rather beside the point. :) Building codes certainly permit it, but the sort of people who are concerned about the safety PVC appear to have a standard of not using PVC for potable water. Whether or not that makes any sense, I have no idea. What I don’t know about construction is a lot.

  7. Did you read that the study you mention was horribly, horribly flawed and biased? It’s worse than a 5th grade science fair experiment. Not saying it doesn’t bring up a potential concern, but I’d hardly call it science or anything close to conclusive or even reliable.

  8. Did you read that the study you mention was horribly, horribly flawed and biased?

    Well, if I did, do you think I would have written about it? :) I read about the study in U.S. News & World Report and on ABC News’s website, read a bit of the website of the group that commissioned the study, and googled for the organization’s name to make that they weren’t known crackpots. Nothing odd came up as a result of any of those things. Have you got a link?

  9. Yeah, that ABC News article does not make this study look good. (Though the article itself is pretty lousy. The tone of the whole thing is pretty sensational, which is tough to swallow given their simultaneous claims that the study is sensational.) It seems to me that there’s simply insufficient evidence to conclude that the offgassing of PVC, the 108 VOCs released, or the high levels of phthalates found in these shower curtains present legitimate health hazards.

    But why wait to find out the results of a better study? A fabric shower curtain is $9. Why not buy a fabric one next time around? Even the authors of this highly-critical article can only provide a response to a straw man (“I don’t think that this is a case for panic or immediately ripping these things out of houses” — who suggested that?), rather than address the basic question of whether it’s worth considering this flimsy study (and, of course, the better-documented evidence re VOCs, PVC and phthalates) when purchasing a shower curtain. I figure anything with a strong, lingering chemical scent probably shouldn’t be in my house.

  10. For what it’s worth, part of my job is to perform groundwater sampling at sites contaminated by a variety of constituents. We install PVC wells for groundwater monitoring. The standard use to be steel, but PVC is accepted by the EPA and most state regs. I’ve done air sampling for VOC’s at the wells as well as sample the groundwater. Some sites using the same wells for years, and unless there’s contamination from the groundwater plume, the samples come back clean. Implying that the PVC doesn’t off gas enough to register.

    I’ve asked about this with many a professional. I’ve worked with people that are very specific about not using duct tape near well because VOC’s in the adhesive might through off results (highly unlikely). PVC pipe off gassing isn’t a terribly high concern. Then again, we’re sampling pollution and not for drinking water concerns on some nasty sites.

    Usually, just regular schedule 40 PVC is used, the stuff you can get at Home Depot and what’s used in homes and buildings. Sometimes CPVC. Either way, the materials I’ve used are not the same grade that shower curtains are made of. I’m more bugged by the sensationalism of the media running with a flawed study. And I’m with you too, why not use a fabric curtain?

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