Fixit: A whiff of vinyl
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By Karen Youso
Q: I have a new vinyl shower curtain and was given a vinyl tote bag, perfect for traveling. However, both of them stink terribly. What causes this and what can I do about it?
A: Vinyl products (PVC) stink because they contain volatile organic compounds. VOCs are carbon-containing chemicals that are volatile enough to evaporate at room temperature. This process, called outgassing, is also a problem with building products such as plywood, particleboard, carpet and pads, paints, stains and glues.
Outgassing odors are most noticeable when products are new, but diminish over time until they finally disappear. A shower curtain can outgas for a month or longer, for example, depending on conditions. High temperature and humidity will speed up the release of VOCs.
Meanwhile, you'll want to avoid exposure to VOCs because they can be toxic. Most commonly they irritate eyes, noses and throats, causing coughing, headaches, dizziness and nausea. Usually, the symptoms go away when outgassing ceases.
Here are some ways to avoid or reduce outgassing from vinyl products:
- Don't buy the product. PVC is indicated in some products as a numeral 3 in the recycling symbol with a triangle of chasing arrows. (Vinyl cannot be recycled in most cases.) For items such as shower curtains and handbags, take a whiff. If they stink, don't buy them, or return them to the store and give your reasons.
- Look for substitutes made of PEVA plastic or polyester, which tend to have fewer problems with outgassing. Try stores such as Ikea and Brookstone. Read the label.
- Postpone major remodeling jobs such as carpet installation until spring or summer, when you can increase ventilation by opening doors and windows. Or look for products that release small quantities of chemicals. For example, the Carpet and Rug Institute has a voluntary program to test samples of carpeting. Carpets marked with the institute's "green label" release fewer chemicals.
If you are stuck with the curtain and bag:
- Air the product in a well-ventilated area before bringing it into your home.
- Keep the items in a hot humid area - making sure that windows are open, exhaust fans are operating, etc. - to speed up the outgassing.
Includes information from the Minnesota Department of Health, Indoor Air Quality Program.
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