The Volatile Coverage of Phthalates

Scare tactics prevent reporters from following more useful angles

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.

The coverage got much worse than that, however. An article from the CanWest News Service, published in the Calgary Herald, badly mischaracterizes the report in its lead paragraphs. The reporter, Sarah Schmidt, writes that the curtains had been found to release “over 100 toxic chemicals” into the air. The Toronto Star made a similar mistake. The CHEJ report states that shower curtain can release over “100 chemicals” into the air. CanWest inserts “toxic” before chemicals and the Star inserts the word “dangerous,” yet it is highly uncertain how many of those 100 chemicals actually qualify as such. Few news outlets echoed the report’s careful mention that the U.S. EPA only classifies seven of them as hazardous air pollutants (although it should also be noted that the EPA isn’t a terribly thorough or motivated agency). Furthermore, CanWest’s Schmidt really slips when she writes that all five of the curtains were tested for the VOCs, when it was really only one.

Most news outlets added the obligatory journalistic “balance” to their articles, citing groups like the American Chemistry Council (though the LA Times, much as it failed to explain the CHEJ, failed to mention that this is the chemical industry’s trade group) insisting that PVC shower curtains are safe. But that misses the point. The public doesn’t need one side saying “bad” and the other saying “good”; the public needs to understand what scientists know about the risks of chemical exposure from consumer products, what remains uncertain, and what’s being done (or needs to be done) to have a better understanding. And right now, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding plastics.

A few outlets had more responsible coverage. New York’s Daily News, for example, had a great quote from an associate professor of community and preventive medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, who said that, “If you don’t eat the shower curtain, it probably doesn’t pose a real risk, but if there’s no ventilation you’ll be exposed.” Unfortunately, that only hints at one very relevant piece of scientific understanding about chemicals like phthalates that no news outlet bothered to lay out explicitly: the greatest risk of exposure comes from ingestion, not absorption through the skin, and not inhalation unless there is no ventilation (hence the concern with things like plastic baby toys and bottles).

Only a couple of outlets covered the CHEJ report skeptically. The Canadian Press news service carried an article with the headline, “New concerns about plastic shower curtains may be overblown, experts say.” Amazingly, among the coverage of a report about chemical exposure, it was one of the only outlets to actually to use that word, let alone make clear that the report did nothing to further our understanding of the risks of exposure. Another outlet that was brave enough to do some serious reporting on this was ABC News, which had a wonderful, long piece headlined, “Studies Gone Wild: Death by Shower Curtain?” In it, a team of three reporters critically analyze the CHEJ’s methodology and point out that its report says nothing about actual human health outcomes related to shower-curtain exposure.

Who knows? Maybe the best approach would have been to ignore the CHEJ’s remarks about toxicity entirely and focus on some of the overlooked, but more vital, points it made. The true value of the study, after all, might be the pressure it puts on the federal government to finally come up with a better chemical-regulation scheme. CHEJ argues, quite correctly, that more oversight is needed, including both testing and labeling. The Washington Post had an excellent article on Thursday that was far drier, but perhaps more important than any of the CHEJ coverage. It described the new regulatory scheme being rolled out in Europe where:

The new laws in the European Union require companies to demonstrate that a chemical is safe before it enters commerce—the opposite of policies in the United States, where regulators must prove that a chemical is harmful before it can be restricted or removed from the market.

And that really is the bottom line. Chemical exposure (from consumer products or the daily environment) is one of the most poorly understood facets of modern life, and much needs to be done to change that. Unfortunately, when something like this shower-curtain study is released, the press runs away with the easy, sexy angle of lurking danger, and that distracts reporters from tougher, but far more useful work.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.