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Scientist Wonders: Did Her Couch Kill Her Cat?

New America Media, Feature, Viji Sundaram Posted: Oct 31, 2008

Editor's Note: Arlene Blum -- scientist, mountaineer, and environmental activist is leading the fight to get safer consumer products in stores. Blum has been nominated for a 2008 Purpose Prize, an award given to people who are over 60 and are channeling their talent to address critical social problems. NAM editor Viji Sundaram profiles Blum's life and career.

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Literally and metaphorically, Arlene Blum has climbed virtually every mountain she has set out to conquer except one.

It's probably only a matter of time before she scales that one, too, given her ferocious tenacity and never-say-die attitude.

Blum, a biophysical chemist by profession with a doctoral degree from U.C. Berkeley, has taught at Stanford University, Wellesley College, and U. C. Berkeley. She is currently a visiting scholar at Berkeley's Department of Chemistry and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute.

"I want to use my knowledge and love of chemistry to inform people about these potentially toxic chemicals in their homes," the 63-year-old research scientist said recently, just days after she returned from a trip to China and Japan to try to help prevent those countries from suffering the same fate as the United States when it comes to toxins in household products.

The death of her beloved 15-year-old cat, Midnight, a couple of weeks ago, "possibly because of toxic chemicals in my furniture," has reinforced her determination to get California to stop using toxic fire retardants in furniture foam.

She was also in Asia to promote her recently released memoir, "Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life," a compelling narrative of how she realized improbable dreams both among the worlds' highest mountains and also in the chemistry laboratory.

Blum has climbed on some of the tallest mountains in the world including reaching camp IV on Mount Everest in 1976, setting an altitude record for an American woman at that time of 24,500 feet.

She led the first Americanand all-women'sascent of Annapurna I, considered one of the world's most dangerous and difficult mountains. She also led the first women's team up Mt. McKinley; was the first American woman to attempt Mt. Everest; made the first traverse of the Great Himalaya Range of Bhutan, Nepal and India; and hiked the length of the European Alps with her baby daughter on her back.

Blum's awards include a Gold Medal from the Society of Women Geographers, an honor previously given to only eight other women including Amelia Earhart, Margaret Mead, and Mary Leakey.

Her world travels continue to inspire her community organizing. She is well known as the founder of the annual Berkeley Himalayan Fair and the Burma Village Assistance Project

She is currently giving her heavy-duty mountain climbing avocation a rest, as well as her speeches and leadership seminars across the United States, as she redoubles her efforts to stop California from putting toxic furniture on the market.

Chlorinated Tris, a fire retardant, is used in the foam inside furniture sold in California to meet state standards for fire retardancy. The state is considering similar standards for pillows, comforters and mattress pads, Blum said. No other state has similar regulations.

The most effective and inexpensive way for manufacturers to meet state standards is to treat bedding and furniture with brominated and chlorinated hydrocarbons like Tris.

A study released earlier this month by the Silent Spring Institute found that Californians had twice the level of a fire retardant known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in their blood as people in other states.

Animal studies have found that PBDEs cause thyroid, reproductive and neurological problems. Even though the chemical industry insists there is no evidence the chemicals cause health problems in humans, "I'd like the industry to provide health and safety information about chemicals before a product is put on the market," Blum said, noting, "The chemical industry controls the dialogue."

The chemicals migrate out of the foam, settle in dust and coat walls with a thin film, she said. "Cats that groom themselves and toddlers who crawl in dust show especially high levels" of such fire retardant chemicals as PBDEs.

The recent Silent Spring Institute study found that people of color and low-income people have higher levels of these harmful chemicals in their bodies. This could be because their furniture is likely to be older and less expensive, exuding more of these harmful chemicals.

Blum is not your average sign-toting environmentalist, screaming slogans about what others have discovered. It was Blum who provided scientific advice to California Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) for a bill he sponsored that would have reduced potentially toxic fire retardants in furniture, and transfer responsibility to the manufacturer to prove safety. The bill, unfortunately, died in the Senate last August, after heavy lobbying by fire retardant manufacturers.

Undeterred, Leno recently sent a letter to Governor Schwarzenneger asking him to ban fire retardant chemicals from furniture, using the executive power he has gained via the Green Chemistry Initiative which gives him greater ability to prohibit particular chemicals.

To see why her hyperthyroid cat and dust had such high levels of brominated fire retardants, Blum borrowed a portable x-ray fluorescence analyzer and invited acquaintances to bring their foam furniture cushions to be tested. The tests showed high levels of bromine in many of the items, including her own couch and chair cushions.

"My furniture is uniquely toxic because I live in California," Blum wrote in an Oct. 17 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece.

Blum is trying to lick the toxics problem on many fronts. She is the founder and executive director of the Berkeley-based Green Science Policy Institute (GSPI), a newly formed global coalition between industry, government officials, scientists, physicians and NGOs, which is trying to stop the use of toxic chemicals in consumer products. GSPI is also encouraging a move to less hazardous chemicals and technologies, and supports chemical policy reform.

Her past research at the University of California 30 years ago contributed to the regulation of two cancer-causing chemicals that were used as flame retardants on children's sleepwear. The brominated and chlorinated Tris caused mutations in DNA, and leached from pajamas into children's bodies.

Blum wonders why California continues to risk the health of its residents from very high levels of exposure to such toxic fire retardants, instead of dealing with the sources of ignition, requiring smoke detectors, and enforcing stringent building, fire and electrical codes. She cites statistics that indicate death and injury from home fires have declined in other states at about the same rate as in California due mostly to a reduction in smoking. Twenty-two states, including California, have mandated fire-safe cigarettes.

Blum has been nominated for a 2008 Purpose Prize, an award given to people who are over 60 and are channeling their talent to address critical social problems at the local, regional or national level. Five $100,000 investments and ten $10,000 investments are given each year by the San Francisco-based non-profit, Civic Ventures.

"(Arlene Blum's) story is inspiring because it shows how one determined individual can put together effective broad-based teams and make headway in protecting the public health and environment against multimillion dollar PR campaigns and the determined efforts of a large industry," said Blum's nominator, Joan Blades, co-founder of Moveon.org and Mom's Rising.org.

Related Articles:

California Needs More Green Chemistry Action Heroes

School Matters: Green School Movement Focuses on Air Quality

Domestic Workers Clean Up Their Work Environments

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