The Checkout

Is It Curtains for Your Shower Curtain?

Annys Shin

I'm back from the City of Brotherly Love for my sister-in-law's wedding. And in my inbox this morning, I see the Great Plastic Safety Debate raged on in my absence.

The subject this time is shower curtains.

The opening salvo came from the Falls Church-based Center for Health and Environmental Justice, which put out a report saying that that new shower curtain smell is not so good for you. CHEJ hired an independent lab to test several shower curtains purchased at big box stores for various chemicals and heavy metals. The lab found the shower curtains contained phthalates, a chemical compound used to make soft plastic that may cause reproductive problems. The lab also found that the shower curtains released some of their chemical components into the air when exposed to heat and humidity.

But--and it's a pretty big but--the testing did not show that the shower curtains released phthalates.

In the report, the group explains the methodology used wasn't adequate to detect whether phthalates were being released.

When pressed about why the group didn't just wait to release the report until after it did further tests, CHEJ's Mike Schade said it didn't have the funding to do so and felt the chemicals the curtains did release were bad enough. Also, Congress just happened to be holding hearings last week on phthalates.

The report was dismissed by Consumer Product Safety Commission spokeswoman Julie Vallese who called its claims "phantasmagorical," thereby making herself a finalist for this year's Best Use of Vocabulary by a Spokesperson Award.

The no-proof-of-phthalate-release problem also became fodder for the American Chemistry Council and the Vinyl Institute (a.k.a. Big Shower Curtain), which see all such reports as part of a plot by enviros to whip us all into a needless paranoid frenzy.

Each group took a different tack.

The ACC sent an e-mail to reporters using the subject line "CORRECTION TO SHOWER CURTAIN SCARE STUDY" -- you know, cause nothing gets a reporter's attention like the C-word.

The e-mail was not a correction request, though. It was more of a screed against coverage of such reports. The group feels that journalists are not doing a good job scrutinizing those reports and spreading the word that the ACC says plastic shower curtains are safe.

Did I mention that the American Chemistry Council says plastic shower curtains are safe?

The group also said in a release that CHEJ was spreading misinformation by implying phthalates had something to do with new shower curtain smell. Phthalates don't even have an odor--a fact, the ACC said, "that any chemist knows."

Take that enviros and Periodic Table-hatas!

The Vinyl Institute dispensed with bashing journalists and anyone who got less than an A in chemistry by choosing instead to spin the report in a positive light. Their release, titled "Shower Curtains Declared Harmless," read as follows:

"Decades of research and use prove that shower curtains made of vinyl are safe, effective and deserve their popularity....Vinyl shower curtains are tough, easy to clean, and can be colored and patterned in endless ways, which have made them popular bathroom accessories for decades."

For some reason, reading that made me miss Phil Hartman.

Where this leaves average consumers, you tell me. The enviros and Big Shower Curtain are fighting for your soul. How are they doing? Do you feel like you are getting the information you need to make an informed choice?

By Annys Shin |  June 18, 2008; 9:00 AM ET Annys Shin
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Actually I feel that Big Meida is doing a lousy job of reporting things like these. They look for the easiest to publish sound bite and then try to dumb that down further. I give kudos to ACC for trying to "sound bite" hard science, but that's an impossible task. So, if Big Media could get beyond cliches (Big Chemicial...come on) and sound bites and actually report some actual facts (research...what a novel idea) that would help everyone.

Posted by: Cleetus8 | June 18, 2008 10:21 AM

How do you pronounce "phthalates" - falates or talathes or futalates?

Posted by: speaking of vocab | June 18, 2008 10:51 AM

It's funny - my wife and I are very wary of any chemical substances in food, water bottles, hair and skin care products, etc. and sometimes when people find out, they think we are insane; even my wife worries what people will think.

I think it is *more* insane that people are so willing to expose themselves to chemicals that they don't have any information about. "Oh, if it were bad for you, the FDA would ban it" they say. HA HA!! Are you kidding me?! I don't trust the FDA any more than a street corner drug dealer, each has about the same interest in my well being - they both care more about their own interests, which are largely tied to money.

Get a clue people, so few have your best interests in mind!

Posted by: Jason Bunting | June 18, 2008 12:12 PM

It is worth noting that one of the 2001 Nobel Prize winners for chemistry, William Knowles, recently denounced the anti-phthalate hysteria, proclaiming the family of plasticizers both extensively studied and safe. He has been largely ignored, not only by the media, but by the activists trying to get phthalates banned. When someone of such scientific stature (he received the Nobel for work crucial to the development of green chemistry) can't get a word into the debate, we're in trouble. This is not to say he's right; it's to say, this guy, arguably, knows more about this issue than any of the combatents - why don't we listen to him with an open mind?

The claims that phthalates are dangerous rest on some very complex statistical associations and a certain amount of inference and hypothesizing from animal studies. The National Toxicology Program is interested - and many toxicologists I've talked to described the research as genuinely interesting; at the same time, there are substantial limitations to this research, several flaws, and, as a consequence, most toxicologists think the media has overhyped the risk. (Congratulations for not doing this in this blog post, btw).

It's just not clear that there is ANY risk, or that even if there is a risk, it's one we should pay attention to. The fact is that everything is chemical. Breathing even the purest, freshest air is "toxic" if you consider that it results in cell oxidization.

What bothers me about the CHEJ report is that they are unwilling to concede a millimeter on the idea that scientific community doesn't agree about the risk of many of these chemicals. Instead, the most tentative evidence is proof that we should do something to prevent the possibility of danger. To most scientists, that's irrational. First, the body has a tremendous capacity to withstand toxins, render them harmless and excrete them (how else could we eat organic vegetables, which are full of naturally occurring chemicals? Or drink coffee?). If you don't believe me, read "The Poison Paradox" by John Timbrell, a British academic toxicologist.

But there is another side to banning something like phthalates: what is the risk of removing them? Again, environmentalists ignore the problem that many chemicals are in industrial and commercial products for a reason, and replacing them with less effective or less tested alternatives also creates a risk.

Trevor Butterworth

Posted by: Trevor Butterworth | June 18, 2008 12:58 PM

It's a shower curtain people! Exactly how much time would one need to spend in the shower to have any chance of harm? Now, if you happen to use your shower curtain as a bedspread and spend 8 hours under it per day, that is a different story.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 18, 2008 2:37 PM

Green is a smoke screen for the reality that the world is running out of resources that the collective "we" all depend upon to live (meaning hippies, eco-terrorists, vegans, the left, the right, and everyone else on the planet)- "we" are literally running out of clean air to breathe, fossil fuels to power us, and clean water to sustain us. The real "Green" is the big companies realizing that prices for goods are going to be so high that people can't afford to support their basic needs and that resources are getting so scarce that real people are dying. Poverty stricken people and dead people make poor consumers. The Real green is the smart minds in our world trying to figure out what the heck we can do to save civilization. The enviro-crazy fake green is about banning plastics that make affordable safe products, about opportunistic companies jumping on marketing opportunities for alternative products due to the general herd mentality of the masses, and about the eco spin that would have this herd believe that cutting down trees for paper products is greener than using salt and small amounts of fossil fuel for plastic packaging and other consumer products. Never mind we are cutting down the forests. Never mind that we are taking crop land out of production; and never mind these so called alternatives are more expensive and require more energy to produce than the products they are eco-replacing. Clearly, "we" are mostly ignorant. The real fake green hype is coming from well organized tech savvy idealist self-serving eco-freaks smoking presciption tobacco as they manipulate politics to push their irresponsible agendas.....say like in California. However, there are real problems in the world as opposed to the fake ones they are litigating - or are "we" failing to notice reality (or just ignoring it as the anti-plastic activists do so well) as "we" continue to debate vinyl shower curtains and plastic water bottles that are really safe as compared to a lot of very dirty, very real alternatives. Hello out there...have you noticed there are places without food, without clean water, and that our fossil fuel is getting so expensive that life as we know it is slowly grinding to a halt. Stop the hype on plastics. What a waste

Posted by: dot | June 18, 2008 3:17 PM

pronunciation: THAL-ates (rhymes with Al ate"

Posted by: Anonymous | June 18, 2008 3:23 PM

I don't understand why people are just figuring this out. I've known for years that new shower curtains are going to off-gas bad stuff.

Posted by: s | June 18, 2008 7:01 PM

Being a big fan of Phil Harman I just can't resist responding! I'm a doctor and have reviewed the report on volatile vinyl, and I am concerned. The independent lab tests done by CHEJ found that as many as 108 chemicals can be released from PVC shower curtains into the air! Some of these are known to cause cancer, others affect the brain, lungs and reproductive system. These compounds are what causes the "new curtain smell".
The chemical industry says "Decades of research and use prove that shower curtains made of vinyl are safe". What decades of research? Who did these studies, and who funded them? Where are they? I haven't seen any data from either the Vinyl Institute or the American Chemistry Council that indicates that vinyl shower curtains are perfectly safe.
No one is suggesting that you take a shower without a shower curtain! There are other, safe alternatives.
It just seems like a lot of spin and hot air to me, like the ways in which the tobacco industry argued that smoking cigarettes was "perfectly safe" for decades!

Posted by: David O. Carpenter, M.D. | June 19, 2008 9:50 AM

Why don't curtain alarmists just start a rumor that kids are trying to get high sniffing new shower curtains? That should result in the reforms they desire.

Posted by: Mike Licht | June 19, 2008 11:47 AM

Can we just take a minute to consider what this report was about? It's saying that there are some toxic materials used and released from a common household product. That seems indisputable based on present knowledge and we are still learning about some of these things. Furthermore, as Dr. Carpenter said, the volatile chemicals are what causes the "new curtain smell," which means consumers breathe them. Finally, the report notes that there are safe alternatives to these curtains readily available (we have them in our house) that don't release these chemicals and recommends that consumers purchase those instead. Sounds right to me.

Posted by: Richard Clapp | June 19, 2008 2:48 PM

The whole phalates thing is kind of contentious. In mice it is linked to hormone disruption and cancer. As someone else stated, you would probably have to spend 24 hours in the shower for months (even years) on end for it to matter. What is concerning is that the shower curtains end up in land fills where the phalates leach out into drinking water. I would hope everyone can agree that drinking water should be as free from contaminates as possible- even ones that may or maynot have proven health risks. I don't want phalates in my water any more than I want a huge amount of forest animal poop in it. I don't care that one is man made and one is "all natural".

Posted by: Rachel | June 19, 2008 4:57 PM

Rachel - landfills today (and yesterday) have a several foot thik clay liner and very complex leachate collection system, so anything getting "out" of landfills is collected and treated. So...not an issue.

Posted by: Byte 1 | June 19, 2008 8:19 PM

The report and all the publicity also failed to emphasize the biggest factor. The "off-gassing" that occurs typically occurs in the first 48-72 hours the product is taken out of the package. After that, there are no measureable chemicals released. Any claims of the materials being cancer causing is when exposed to large quantities or if you are exposed to small quantities over a very long period of time. Last time I checked, I don't replace my shower curtain every 3 days. This is all a non-issue being pushed by the extreme environmentalists you used to ignore when they were out ranting and raving on the street corners. Now that the internet provides anonymity, it's much easier for these same extremists to spew there rants and people are stupid enough to listen as though they are facts.

Posted by: Don | June 20, 2008 12:40 PM

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