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.