Campus & community, Campus news

Post-Annapurna, blazing trails out of the toxic swamp

By Barry Bergman


The determination that made Arlene Blum a history-making mountaineer is apparent, nearly four decades on, as she walks her favorite trail in Tilden Park. You see it not so much in the hike itself, which is gentle enough for business meetings — she calls this placid stretch of green and gravel “my office” — but in how she views a signal breakthrough in her campaign to get toxic chemicals out of America’s furniture.

Arlene Blum

Arlene Blum pauses along a favorite trail in Tilden Park. (Barry Bergman photos)

Breakthroughs appeared unlikely in 2007, when Blum set her sights on reducing the widespread use of flame retardants, a threat few were even aware of. She had just returned as a visiting scholar to UC Berkeley — where she earned a Ph.D. in biophysical chemistry in the 1970s — when she discovered alarming levels of PBDEs in the blood of her cat Midnight, then suffering from hyperthyroidism and severe weight loss. She learned that the disease, unseen in cats until 1979, had become epidemic.

And though she “hadn’t done chemistry in a very long time,” she quickly saw that the chemical structure of PBDEs, commonly used as a flame retardant in furniture, closely resembled the hormone thyroxine. At elevated levels, thyroxine was known to result in weight loss, hyperactivity and increased appetite, and suspected to be a major cause of death in cats.

As she proved in her 30s, when she led the first all-female teams to the summits of Annapurna and Denali, Blum — often described as “a force of nature” — has a knack for inspiring others to join her on ambitious, arduous quests. Now, eyes on a new objective, she set about rallying scientists, elected officials and concerned citizens to the task of raising awareness about flame retardants, and getting them out of household furniture.

Six years of effort are about to pay off: If all goes well, sofas and other foam products sold in the state could be free of the chemicals by next year, thanks to a sweeping regulatory change ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Blum, however, isn’t ready to plant the flag. She calls herself “cautiously optimistic.”

She has reason for caution. Her 1977 paper in the journal Science — co-authored as a doctoral student with UC Berkeley biochemist Bruce Ames — led to a federal ban on treating children’s pajamas with brominated Tris, a fire retardant shown to cause cancer in animals. Success, however, was short-lived. Brominated Tris was replaced with a close cousin, chlorinated Tris, which she and Ames also identified as a likely carcinogen. Chlorinated Tris, too, was removed from kids’ sleepwear.

Blum, meanwhile, moved on, devoting her time and talents to heading up treks in the Himalayas, writing memoirs, conducting leadership-training workshops and raising a daughter.

So she was understandably shocked to find, on returning to academia, that Tris was still being used in furniture and other household products — including, yes, baby products. In order to comply with California’s “fire safety” standard, it turned out, makers of such products had no choice but to add flame retardants, which have been linked to health effects ranging from cancer and reduced fertility in adults, and to lower IQs and neurological problems in children exposed during pregnancy. The chemicals have turned up everywhere from human breast milk to the tissue of Arctic marine mammals.

Blum consulted with scientists and business leaders. She made the case to journalists — often on walks in Tilden Park — and advised state lawmakers. She launched an annual series of campus seminars on “The Fire Retardant Dilemma,” and founded the Green Science Policy Institute , which aims to provide “unbiased scientific data to government, industry and non-governmental organizations to facilitate informed decision-making about the use of chemicals in consumer products.”

Spurred by the institute, scientific evidence has mounted that while the fire retardants needed to meet the state’s flammability standard pose substantial threats to health and the environment, the standard isn’t even effective in preventing fires. What’s worse, Blum says, the chemicals make fires more toxic, posing greater risks to firefighters.

“Our work has shown that there’s not an additional fire-safety benefit,” she says. “And this massive science has documented severe harm. So no benefit, severe harm – why are we doing it?”

Soon enough, it appears, we no longer will. But that’s not enough for Blum, who sees the change as a plateau, not a peak. And Blum’s all about peaks.

‘Some kind of tipping point’

If you check your couch, you’ll probably find a certification that “this article meets the flammability requirements of California Bureau of Home Furnishings Technical Bulletin 117,” commonly known as TB 117. The standard requires foam in furniture cushions — not, notably, the fabric around the cushions — to withstand a 12-second exposure to an open flame, a test commonly met with flame retardants.

California’s new rule, now expected to take effect in early 2014, calls for upholstery fabric to resist a smoldering cigarette — far and away the leading cause of furniture fires — instead of focusing on the foam underneath, as is the case under TB 117. Fabric will not need to be treated with flame retardants in order to meet that test.

“I think there’s been some kind of tipping point,” she allows. “What we were trying to do via legislation, and what we’re now doing in California, is increase fire safety without the use of these harmful chemicals.

“It’s a big win-win for almost everyone,” she adds, the notable exception being the chemical industry, which has lobbied with vigor — and a $23 million war chest — for the status quo.

Blum, though, is pushing ahead, knowing that industry will push back.

Arlene Blum

California’s new fire-safety standard, says Blum, will be “a big win-win for almost everyone.”

“We have been very successful at bringing the best science to the attention of decision-makers in government and industry, to the public and the media, and changing policy to protect health,” she says. “The problem is that the other side keeps coming up with new standards that are met with more flame retardants.”

She’s now urging state officials to follow the governor’s lead by rolling back a similar mandate that requires manufacturers of building insulation to add flame retardants to their products as well. (A bill authored by Berkeley state Assemblymember Nancy Skinner calls on the state fire marshal to review the Uniform Building Code, which regulates foam plastic insulation in walls, and to work to ensure fire safety “while giving full consideration to the long-term human and ecological health impacts associated with chemical flame retardants.”)

But after years of pressing the case in Sacramento — offering research and testimony on behalf of a series of failed bills that had the support of firefighters and furniture manufacturers, but were staunchly opposed by the chemical industry — Blum wants to “step back and look at the big picture.” She’s weary of fighting “battles where you stop one standard, and there’s another one,” or where industry’s response to restrictions on one suspected carcinogen is simply to “change an atom.”

Instead, she plans to focus her considerable energy working with scientists and industry on more comprehensive strategies to get the best information to policymakers and consumers, and provide people with better, less toxic options not just for sofas and insulation, but for a broad range of products.

Rather than effecting change one policy at a time, she says, “We want to bring the science to decision-makers in government and industry, the public, the press, so that they can use it to educate themselves and make informed choices.”

Targeting ‘bad actors’

“I love chemicals,” declares Blum. “Most chemicals are good. But there are a handful of bad actors. We know what they are. We can make decisions not to use them, and we’ll all be healthier.”

The “bad actors,” she says, are not just flame retardants, but chemicals like stain repellents and anti-bacterials. Much of our clothing, she notes, “has fluorinated chemicals that end up in our bodies and stay in the environment forever and are harmful and toxic, and they’re there to make clothing water-repellent and stain-repellent.”

“Maybe people would rather have clothing that didn’t repel water and stains, and wasn’t toxic,” she suggests. “But they don’t have that information, or that choice.”

Which is why, despite the looming changes to California’s flammability standard — changes expected to affect not only furniture sold within the state, but nationwide — Blum isn’t ready to kick back and enjoy the view.

“It’s been a miraculous six years,” she says. “I mean, who would ever believe, after not doing science for so long, that being a scientist could make such a difference? And it does keep turning out to be more and more important as we get all the health information in.

“I feel very privileged to have had this opportunity,” she says. Then, pausing briefly along the Tilden trail, she adds: “Though I wouldn’t mind having a life someday.”