Some chemicals just keep on giving and giving to the poisoned well of urban nightmares. The latest attempt to wring a health scare out of phthalates (indicted by environmental activists as presenting a threat to health in everything from iPhones to dildos) is that they’re in your shower curtains.
Despite recent statements by William S. Knowles, one of the 2001 Nobel prize winners for chemistry, that phthalates pose no threat to health and that the environmental activists jihad is the real toxic problem, and statements to congress by Dr. Earl Gray of the EPA that the real area of concern is the effects of exposure to IV tubing in infants, a new self-published (i.e., non-peer reviewed) “scientific” study by The Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) claims the smell you get when you open up a new shower curtain is toxic.
And this is enough to get reporters and the public all worried about dying from cancer or becoming infertile. As Kate Merrril for WBZ Boston reported:
The group tested several shower curtains and found lead, mercury and high levels of phthalates.
“They affect particularly the developing reproductive system,” said Ruthann Rudel, a scientist with the Silent Spring Institute, a research group dedicated to tracking environmental causes of cancer.
She says children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to these chemicals, and that worries Brookline mother of two, Judy Robinson. “It’s a little overwhelming to feel like you have to be a scientist to go to the store to buy things for your family.”
But there is no actual evidence in the report, or any actual scientific study to suggest that there is a risk from a shower curtain being used as a shower curtain. What the CHEJ measured was the off-gassing of certain chemicals; it didn’t account for likely routes of exposure in humans and infants and whether there was evidence that these exposures showed a risk. Nor did it suggest a way that traces of mercury or lead could be ingested through showering.
And this leads to the real absurdity of the report, which should have been obvious to any reporter who read it: even though the CHEJ warned about all the ways in which phthalates could be dangerous to health (in the process mischaracterizing research by Shanna Swan on reproductive health in baby boys to claim harm where none occurred), the Center was forced to concede that:
The lab was not able to achieve the lower detection limits necessary to identify phthalates off-gassing to the air of the small chamber for this study. CHEJ is considering an additional investigation with a laboratory that could achieve the lower detection limits needed, since initial results indicated the presence of phthalates in shower curtains.
In other words, the study found phthalates in the shower curtains but couldn’t find phthalates coming off the shower curtains. And if you can’t measure migration, how can you claim there’s an exposure risk? It’s a bit like saying, “there’s vinyl covering the wires inside a TV set; vinyl contains phthalates; phthalates are dangerous; we couldn’t really measure any phthalates coming out of the TV, but there must be (wait for another study), and meanwhile, watch out, TV exposes you to toxic chemicals.
Equally sly is the CHEJ’s conclusion that the chemicals released by shower curtains are a major source of indoor air pollution, and that the American Lung Association (ALA) considers indoor air pollution a major health problem; it does, but there’s nothing in its fact sheet to indict shower curtains or vinyl. Instead, the ALA warns about “biological pollutants, including molds, bacteria, viruses, pollen, dust mites, and animal dander,” radon, tobacco smoke, formaldehyde, asbestos, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and potential exposures to chemicals in household cleaning agents, personal care products, pesticides, paints, hobby products, and solvents.
The determination of the CHEJ to find a risk from phthalates at any level – let’s keep lowering the detection limits! – is why activist science demands skepticism: instead of trying to determine if there is a risk, the CHEJ is determined to prove that there is a risk, even if the evidence – at least for phthalates – doesn’t quite get there.
But in a spirit of scientific collaboration, and seeing that the CHEJ is going to follow up with more research, STATS has a suggestion: why don’t the members of the CHEJ eat a variety of shower curtain samples? That’s the surest way of seeing if those nasty phthalates are really toxic.