June 27, 2013.
UC Berkeley’s Arlen Blum works to reduce use of flame retardants in household products.
Arlene Blum, UC Berkeley
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.
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.”