If you're showering behind a vinyl curtain, especially a new one, best not to inhale too deeply:  The plastic contains phthalates and other toxic chemicals that readily evaporate, or "off-gass" into the air, according to a study released last week by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ). Hot steamy conditions promote the release of phthalates, plasticizers that are not chemically bonded to the PVC, to which they lend that soft but creepy cling.

Researchers tested five unopened PVC vinyl shower curtains purchased from Bed Bath & Beyond, Kmart, Sears, Target and Wal-Mart. High concentrations of phthalates, which have been linked to childhod asthma, genital deformities and obesity in humans as well as to cancer and hormone disruption in animals, were found in all five curtains. Organotins, which can affect the nervous, reproductive and immune systems, were found in 60% of the curtains, and the Wal-Mart curtain contained such volatile organic compounds as toluene, methyl isobutyl ketone and ethylenzene.

Along with the polluting lifecycle of PVC, the least recyclable plastic, whose manufacture releases carcinogenic dioxins into the environment (where they rise in the food chain), it adds up to a catalog of shower horrors that might have impressed Alfred Hitchcock.

Below are some healthier and more sustainable choices. 

Greenest is certified organic cotton, grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. To find, click here.

Hemp, a crop that requires fewer pesticides than conventional cotton, is  also a green option.

Rawganique and Pristine Planet sells hemp shower curtains.

Crate and Barrel sells cotton and hemp curtains, and polyester liners  (made from petroleum but recyclable and phthalate-free).

IKEA PEVA shower curtains are as cheap as vinyl but phthalate-free. 

Because Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond are actively phasing out PVC, according to CHEJ, you should be able to find alternative curtains in those stores. To read CHEJ's report, click here.

To prevent shower curtain mold and mildew, keep your bathroom well-ventilated;  if splotches develop, add a half cup of borax, white vinegar or hydrogen peroxide when you wash it.

This article originally appeared in Plenty in June 2008. The story was moved to MNN.com.

Copyright Environ Press 2008