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Arlene Blum

Biochemist, world-class mountaineer rallies for policy work on flame retardants

by Rachel Petkewich
December 8, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 49

Credit: John Kokoska
Credit: John Kokoska

WHILE ATTENDING a green chemistry conference in 2006, Arlene Blum found herself chatting with a foam industry executive. When he sketched the structure of a flame retardant currently used in couches, she couldn't believe her eyes.

He had drawn chlorinated tris, a phosphate compound that Blum and Bruce N. Ames of the University of California, Berkeley, had demonstrated in the late 1970s to have mutagenic properties along with its brominated twin. Shortly after their discovery appeared in Science, manufacturers voluntarily removed the chemicals from children's sleepwear.

Clearly, Blum says, just doing the science isn't sufficient for good policy decisions. So the chemist is drawing attention to flame retardants once again.

Blum is taking action to limit the amount of potentially toxic chemicals used in consumer products by bringing together independent scientists and industry and government decision makers and by highlighting peer-reviewed studies on the fate of these compounds in people and the environment. She is particularly concerned about hazardous halogenated chemicals. Brominated and chlorinated flame retardants are pressing concerns, she says. Large volumes of these chemicals are found in furniture, electronics, and building insulation, and studies show they can migrate into dust and that they are found in humans and animals.

To do this work, Blum recently started the Green Science Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization in Berkeley that forges collaborations among scientists, government, industry, and nongovernmental organizations. She is also a scientific adviser to California state legislators. And as a visiting scholar in the chemistry department at UC Berkeley, she encourages scientists to think about the policy implications of their research.

Earlier this month, a nonprofit organization called Civic Ventures awarded Blum the Purpose Prize, a $100,000 unrestricted grant for her approach to using scientific research to create healthier communities. Only people over 60 years old who started their work after their 50th birthday can be nominated.

Although Blum, who at 63 is also a world-class mountain climber, formally began this science policy work only two years ago, her interest goes back to the late 1970s. But "in 1980, which was President Reagan's first term, it looked like the next four years might be challenging for health and environmental work," she recalls. So she took the opportunity to walk across the Himalayas, she says.

Over the next 26 years, Blum racked up a dizzying array of accomplishments. She blazed trails in high-altitude mountain climbing; wrote two books; taught leadership seminars; led treks; and raised her daughter, who is now a junior in college.

Blum fell in love with molecules and mountain climbing when she attended Reed College, in Oregon. She wrote her senior thesis about volcanic gases, collecting samples on nearby Mount Hood in the process. She split her time between completing a Ph.D. in biophysical chemistry at UC Berkeley and setting climbing records, such as leading the first team of women to summit Denali, in Alaska, the highest mountain in North America.

Blum read the proofs of the Science article authored with Ames at a 24,500-foot-high camp on Mount Everest, where she set an altitude record for women. She taught chemistry at Wellesley College, in Massachusetts; Stanford University; and UC Berkeley when she wasn't leading expeditions such as one involving the first American team to climb Annapurna I, one of the most dangerous peaks in the Himalayas. But the death of a close friend high on another mountain ultimately left her committed to doing practical research that would positively affect the world.

After hearing in 2006 that California-made couches contained chlorinated tris, Blum found a new direction. She learned that many furniture manufacturers who sell nationwide follow California's flammability standards. Beginning in the 1980s, manufacturers used a flame retardant called pentabromodiphenyl ether, which California banned in 2003 after it was found to be highly persistent, bioaccumulative, and linked to negative health effects. Chlorinated tris made its way into upholstered furniture in the early 2000s as a replacement. "California banned penta and the best that manufacturers can do is pull chlorinated tris out of the dustbin?" she asks, adding that there must be a better solution.

Blum cites several problems with these halogenated fire retardants. They are not chemically linked to plastics or foams, so they can escape into the air. At up to 20% of the weight of plastics or foams, they add millions of pounds of potentially toxic chemicals to homes. And they do not actually stop fires; they only slow them down briefly. Fire deaths are down in California, she adds, but no more so than in states without fire-retardant requirements for furniture.

LAST YEAR, Blum led a coalition of scientists, physicians, and fire fighters to defeat a proposed international electronics industry standard that would have required the plastic enclosures of all consumer electronics to resist candle ignition.

The proposed industry standard didn't make sense, she says, because it was not about protecting products from internal fires, but from the unlikely event of a candle igniting the external plastic. Implementing this standard would have required up to 1.7 billion lb of flame retardants annually, she says. And plastics containing the chemicals could not be recycled in most cases.

Blum wrote a detailed paper citing the peer-reviewed literature and made other scientists aware of the problem. Through her efforts, "what is usually a very private industry-only process became a public process," she says.

Now, Blum is working with scientists and manufacturers on projects to create more sustainable furnishings, electronics, and building materials. "I believe that using green chemistry to develop safer materials is not only vital for the health of the world but would also be more profitable for industry."



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