I can't afford the labor involved for tiling around the bathtub. Are there nontoxic "tub surrounds" out there?
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Additional info: I am very sensitive to chemicals.
Tubs and Showers as a Source of Toxins
Baths and showers create high heat and vapors which amplify the effects of toxins in our bathrooms. Areas of real concern for your health in your shower and bath areas focus particularly on three things:
- quality of water coming out of your shower or bath tap
- shower curtain you use around your bath/shower
- tub or bath surround material
We’ll look specifically at the last category, and how large-format tiles for shower surrounds are a healthier alternative to other available surround options.
To learn more about the adverse health effects of unfiltered tap water in baths and showers, I recommend reading Gerald Cobb’s article on Toxic Showers From Unfiltered Water.
To make healthy shower-curtain selections, I recommend reading Dr. Weil’s article on the 108 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) shower curtains leach into your air and ways you can make your shower-curtain selection a healthy choice for your home air quality.
Evaluating Fiberglass and Acrylic Surrounds
The first type of shower surround that may come to mind is the typical formed-fiberglass surround. They are inexpensive and a common surround material for tubs in American homes. However, while minimal and mostly limited to effects of cutting, moving, or disturbing fiberglass (such as when you remove it in a later remodel) there are some health concerns associated with fiberglass.
Health effects from exposure to the fibers in fiberglass include
- skin, eye and upper respiratory tract irritation
- skin rash
- soreness in the nose and throat if the fibers are inhaled
- aggravation of respiratory conditions such as asthma and bronchitis
- stomach irritation, if the fibers are swallowed.
Acrylic tub surrounds look incredibly similar to fiberglass tub surrounds. Acrylic is made from the mixture of acrylic acid and methacrylic acid, together with other chemicals. The most common type of acrylic resin is polymethyl acrylate.
While the EPA has not classified acrylic acid itself as a carcinogen, acrylic resins may contain traces of ethyl acrylate, a known health concern. The Ecology Center has found that acrylic can cause breathing difficulties, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, weakness, headaches and fatigue.
Because of these health concerns and your chemical sensitivity, fiberglass and acrylic are not viable options, so we’ll look at some of the alternatives.
Evaluating Cultured Marble Bath Surrounds
The larger the pieces of the surround material are, the faster the bath surround can be put in place. Three or four pieces of cultured marble could be used to create an entire tub surround and be self-installed in a matter of 1-2 hours, including caulking time. This means large-format applications will be much more affordable than hiring a mason to grout in small tiles around a bathtub or shower.
Seventy-five percent of what makes up cultured marble is actually ground-up marble dust. This creates a "green" use for discarded or broken marble pieces that otherwise would end up in a landfill, so right off the bat, this product is looking like our greenest alternative yet. However, the marble dust of the panels is bound together with polyester resins to protect the marble dust from water intrusion. While the marble itself poses no adverse health effects, there are several adverse health effects of polyester resin.
These effects include:
- irritation of the respiratory tract
- skin rashes
- suffocation in cases of prolonged exposure.
Because of these health concerns, current cultured-marble options are not the best choice for you either, so we’ll look at a healthy, more affordable alternative: large-format ceramic tiles.
Evaluating Large-Format Ceramic Tiles
Ceramic and porcelain tiles can be purchased in large formats and therefore achieve the same levels of economy and reduced installation time discussed above. Both are natural products with no known adverse health effects.
Ceramics are mostly made of clay, a naturally occurring material. Making ceramic tiles is a technology that has safely been used since the time of the ancient Greeks. In ceramics, the atoms of metal and oxygen form a crystal, and when “fired” create the hard surface of ceramic pieces we’ve come to recognize as “tiles” or “china.”
Ceramic tiles can be made of previously recycled tiles and can be recycled again at their end of use, adding another layer of sustainability to your green bathroom by
- reducing the need to mine raw materials
- reducing materials sent to the landfill
- reducing the embodied energy of creating new tile.
Tile producers such as Crossville even have tile take-back programs to help you recycle your tile at the end of its life. Well-known tile dealers such as Daltile and D&B Tile Distributors carry large-format tile you can purchase for your bath surround project.
For more information:
To learn more about the environmental impact of stone and tile products and to see a cost comparison, read our "Buyer's Guide to Eco Stone and Tile."