Student Voice


May 24, 2024



Research suggests exposure to household chemicals has harmful effects on people

November 5, 2009

I just bought a shower curtain. Good for me. I spent nearly 10 minutes at the store making this decision.

I had read about the horrors of PVC (number three plastics that are used in a lot of shower curtains) and their negative effects on the environment—how its production and disposal creates carcinogenic fumes and is nearly impossible to recycle. I considered buying a curtain labeled as “made out of environmentally friendly materials”—whatever that means.  Still, I kept looking.

I found a much more expensive cotton shower curtain that claimed to be water resistant, as well as washable. I figured its production was less toxic and when it was ready for the trash it would decompose. I justified that my kindness to the earth and protecting myself from possible carcinogens or toxic fumes was worth the money. Yay me!

As it turns out, it wasn’t really a “yay me” moment. My first shower with the new curtain had me feeling good about myself in the steamy hot air - which suddenly smelled like I was following a tar truck. It then occurred to me that my towels are cotton and they absorb water, so what makes my shower curtain repel it? Chemicals.

At that moment those chemicals used to make my curtain shed water were now off-gassing into my lungs - possibly making them water resistant too.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the idea of mildew free air-sacs, but I also like the idea of them maintaining their ability to absorb oxygen and release carbon dioxide.

After a little research, it turns out that off-gassing and indoor air pollution is actually a seriously scary issue.

Asthma and cancer are real problems actually caused by the pollution in our homes. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and what the Environmental
Protection Agency labels as “probable carcinogens” are everywhere in our homes. Chemicals like formaldehyde are labeled as a “probable carcinogen” yet it is allowed to be used everywhere in consumer products because, just like people, these chemicals are innocent until proven guilty.

Formaldehyde and other VOCs can be found in clothing, drapes, pressed wood furniture, cleaning products, adhesives, flame-retardants, mattresses, paint, plywood, resin, upholstery, etc.

You know the “new car” smell? How about the smell of hair dye, nail polish, a freshly painted bedroom or new carpeting? That smell is all of the chemicals off-gassing and being released into the air and absorbed by your body.

If you think your exposure is too small to cause any effect, reconsider your exposure. How much of your life do you spend on your mattress, which is soaked in flame-retardants because of the highly flammable foams and padding used to make your mattress soft?

Consider that according to research published in the International Journal of Cancer, women who used permanent self-administered hair dye at least once a month for a year or longer were twice as likely as women who did not use permanent hair dye to develop bladder cancer.

So I ask you to research the effects of the chemicals present in your home on your health and how you can reduce your exposure (yes, it’s possible and better yet, easy).  Be mindful in your research that the manufacturer will tell you its products are safe (they are paid to) so get a second, non-biased opinion.

Kirsten Blake is an alumna of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.


carol on 30 Nov 2009: Kirsten, I totally agree. There is a terrible smell that I can remember from my youth when we got a new vinyl shower curtain. Sure the old one's made great slip and slides but to think that there is more info available today regarding the harm from these products and they are still produced is unthinkable. We switched out these products 2 years ago for linen, a hemp shower curtain for my youngest and a cotton shower curtain for my oldest. We have glass doors in our bathroom. Great article and with two daughters, I am grateful for your efforts on this research.

Scott Dulman on 10 Nov 2009: So... ya get extra credit for this? I know your type... just sits there and takes it... midwest princess.