Anybody that has bought one of the cheap, PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic shower curtains, which are nearly ubiquitous in American houseware stores, knows they stink. And most of those people probably know what they stink like—chemicals. Consumers have complained that the stench probably isn’t good for them; it’s nothing new. And yet that “new-curtain smell” is provided the hook for a rash media stories Friday about the potential toxicity of the widely used product.
It’s not that scientists have determined that PVC curtains are toxic or that they know anything more about exposure levels and unsafe dosages. Rather, a scientific team from the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ), an advocacy group, issued a report reaffirming what the Environmental Protection Agency, other scientists, and, indeed consumers, have known for many years: yes, the chemicals are there, and yes, some of them have been linked to health problems in humans. The group tested five unopened PVC curtains from Bed Bath & Beyond, Kmart, Sears, Target, and Wal-Mart and found high concentrations of phthalates (which have been linked to reproductive damage), and varying concentrations of organotins and metals, both of which have been linked various biological effects. The group also tested one curtain, from Wal-Mart, that released 108 volatile organic compounds into the air.
A lot of this was known, but the CHEJ optimized the report’s chances for media pickup with the editorially sexy title, “Volatile Vinyl - the New Shower Curtain’s Chemical Smell.” It worked and the result has been a spate of typically, and needlessly, worrisome headlines:
• “Dangers Lurking in Your Shower Curtains” (Seattle P-I)
• “Smells Like a Health Hazard” (Globe and Mail, Canada)
• “Your Shower Curtain Might Be Bad for You” (U.S. News & World Report)
• “The Deadly Shower Curtain” (WHJG in Panama City, Florida)
It’s not that there aren’t very well founded concerns about the chemicals in PVC curtains. Personally, I’m all for exercising the “precautionary principle” and trying to avoid even ambiguous risk if there is an easy and safer alternative option. As the CHEJ report point out:
Bed Bath & Beyond, IKEA, JC Penney, Macys, Marks and Spencer, Sears Holdings (Sears and Kmart) and Target have all developed plans to offer more PVC-free shower curtains, but not all of these retailers have set 100% PVC-free phase-out plans and goals.
That’s great. The problem is that the CHEJ report doesn’t have a lot of news in it, and the resulting coverage was terrible.
Take, for example, the article from the Los Angeles Times, which seemed to be one of the more conspicuous media accounts. Reporter Tami Abdollah introduces the study from “researchers for the Virginia-based Center for Health, Environment & Justice,” without ever mentioning that CHEJ is an advocacy group and that its report was not peer-reviewed. Certainly not all good science is peer-reviewed and not all peer-viewed science is good, but journalists need to make these basic distinctions, especially with a report like this. Lower down, Abdollah writes, “One of the curtains tested released measurable quantities of as many as 108 volatile organic compounds into the air, some of which persisted for nearly a month.” Some of which? Try four. And why not mention the fact that after a week only forty VOCs were left. That may still be a problem, but clearly that extra context could lead the reader to a much different conclusion about the dangers posed by his or her curtain.