*This is a work of nonfiction based on actual events as told to me by a woman who experienced them firsthand; used with permission.
My childhood home had a bathroom in the basement, a rare convenience at the time. The bathroom walls were made of cinderblocks, and the tiny room didn't have a door. Instead of a bathroom door, my parents hung floor-to-ceiling curtains in the doorway, fiberglass curtains.
As a child, I can remember my mother's constant refrain. "Don't touch the curtains. Don't touch the curtains. Don't touch the curtains. Don't touch the curtains."
For some reason I couldn't comprehend, those curtains were not to be touched. Here's an explanation courtesy of the blog Phil Are Go!
In the fifties, asbestos was starting to get a bad reputation for making people hideously sick and dead for several thousand years. So, everyone was looking for a new fire-retardant fabric to make everything out of. Owens-Corning stepped up to the microphone and shouted 'fiberglass!,' then absently scratched at some little bumps on the side of its neck. [...] The curtains were definitely good at not burning, shrinking, or wrinkling. But, there was the strategically glossed-over feature that, if you touched them too much, or a little bit, you'd probably get something called fiberglass dermatitis.
When my aunt developed a rash on her hands and arms, she assumed it was something she'd eaten. A week later, the rash had only gotten worse. She cut every possible culprit out of her diet. Strawberries? Grapefruit? Jalapeno peppers? They all had to go.
My aunt felt exasperated. She went to the doctor's office, but the doctor felt stumped. Even the doctor didn't know what had caused the rash. He sent her to an allergist who ordered more tests, but he failed to determine the cause of my aunt's rash.
If you've ever had a persistent rash, maybe poison ivy, then you know how maddening it can be. My aunt felt like she was losing control over it. No over-the-counter creams, sprays, lotions, or potions helped ease the itch.
In the meantime, my aunt was busy spring cleaning her home. She focused on her curtains, taking them down, washing them, and putting them back up in every room of the house. You guessed it. They were fiberglass curtains, and as we now know, fiberglass causes fiberglass dermatitis. It's right in the name.
Desperate for relief, she visited the local emergency room where a doctor urged her to think of anything new that she may have begun around the time the problem started. He had her walk him through a typical day, and she told him about her spring cleaning.
The doctor asked her whether she washed her curtains in the same washing machine she used for her clothes, and she told him she did. In fact, she confessed she had been washing her curtains and her laundry in the same load "to save time and water."
"What kind of material are your curtains?" he asked.
She replied they were fiberglass curtains, and the emergency room doc advised her that fiberglass can make you itchy just by touching it.
Washing your laundry with fiberglass curtains was a surefire way to get a case of dermatitis that would stick around for a while, or at least until you stopped mixing your laundry with fiberglass. And then stopped wearing the clothes.
Fortunately, the other members of her family were unaffected. My aunt never bought fiberglass curtains again. As for the ones she already owned, while I can't speak for all of them, at least one pair ended up hanging in my parents' basement.