Many shower curtains and shower curtain liners are made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, which contains a number of toxic chemicals. If your shower curtain emits the characteristic "new shower curtain smell," you can be pretty sure that it was made with PVC. The chemicals released as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), may cause respiratory irritation; damage to the central nervous system, liver and kidneys; nausea, headaches, and lack of coordination. The most common symptoms that occur with exposure to VOCs include eye irritation, nose and throat discomfort, breathing problems, allergic skin reactions, headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, dizziness and nosebleeds.
In June 2008, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a nonprofit environmental organization reported on a study that found that new shower curtains released 108 VOCs into the air over 28 days, and that after a week 40 VOCs were detected in the air. The number dropped to 16 after two weeks, 11 after three weeks and four after four weeks. The study also found that over seven days, one new PVC shower curtain will release VOCs that exceed the guidelines for indoor air quality established by the U.S. Green Building Council. And it noted that the testing didn't replicate temperature and humidity typically found in bathrooms during showers, which would likely increase the concentrations of VOCs released into the air.
The solution is to avoid shower curtains and liners made with PVCs. Instead, look for PVC-free shower curtains, which are widely available. A number of major retailers plan to offer more PVC-free shower curtains and two, Ikea and Marks & Spencer, are switching over to PVC-free products. You can find a list of those available at major national retailers at http://www.chej.org/showercurtainreport and clicking the link called "PVC and PVC-free shower curtains sold at major retailers." On this page you'll also find the full report, called "Volatile Vinyl," that outlines the scope of the problem and what can be done to solve it.
Andrew Weil, M.D.