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Observations On Flame Retardants Articles

December 17, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 51

I was dismayed to read the portrayal of Arlene Blum in “Fighting Fires” (C&EN, Oct. 29, page 27). The one-sided and highly inappropriate characterization of Blum is in no way consistent with the very hardworking and creative scientist I have known since the 1970s, when she was a postdoctoral fellow in biochemistry and an instructor in my department at Stanford University.

Let me set the record straight for C&EN readers. Blum is an accomplished and respected member of the scientific community who received her Ph.D. in biophysical chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, where she correctly predicted the three-dimensional structure of transfer RNA. At Stanford, she designed and carried out early experiments finding physical evidence for intermediates in protein folding. Her 1970s Science articles with Bruce Ames demonstrating the mutagenicity and likely carcinogenicity of tris flame retardants contributed to the removal of these chemicals from children’s sleepwear. Tris(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl)phosphate, or TDCPP, was recently listed as a cancer-causing chemical under Proposition 65 in California.

In 2008, Blum founded the Green Science Policy Institute to encourage scientists to share their work with decisionmakers. The institute’s research and policy work have contributed to preventing the use of persistent, bioaccumulative, and/or endocrine-disrupting flame retardants in furniture, bed coverings, electronics, and other consumer products. Her paper on flame retardants in juvenile products with Heather Stapleton was selected as the number one paper of 2011 by Environmental Science & Technology. Her numerous peer-reviewed papers are coauthored with distinguished scientists including toxicologist Linda Birnbaum and fire scientists Vyto Babrauskas and Cathy Koshland.

In recognition of her work, the National Women’s History Project selected Blum as one of 100 Women Taking the Lead To Save Our Planet, and the U.K. newspaper the Guardian named her as “one of the world’s 100 most inspiring women.” She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and was awarded the prestigious Purpose Prize for undertaking a new endeavor with societal impact in her later years. Blum is also a respected mountain expedition leader and has been inducted into the Hall of Mountaineering Excellence.

I am deeply troubled by the way C&EN has misrepresented Blum and her work. Such biased treatment is not worthy of the scientific society that you represent. This article sends a discouraging message about the treatment of scientists who work for the public interest to young scientists, whom the world so badly needs to devote their lives to advancing the public welfare.

Donald Kennedy
Former editor-in-chief, Science
Stanford, Calif.

We were disappointed by the Oct. 29 editorial “Chemophobia and Fire Safety,” wherein Maureen Rouhi decries “the general public’s chemophobic predilection” and “the public’s tendency to accept without question chemophobic pronouncements by media-savvy activists” (page 3).

Her charges set the stage for C&EN’s unbalanced attack on the work and personality of Arlene Blum in “Ablaze Over Furniture Fires” (page 28). C&EN gives wide coverage to opinions of flame retardants/fire-safety researchers, producers, and supporters who are hostile to Blum’s work, without balancing interviews with supporters in these areas or scientists who discovered flame retardants’ low-dose adverse effects. Paradoxically, Rouhi concludes by asserting, “Only with unassailable data can we even begin to respond to the shrill voices of chemophobia that threaten to undermine fire safety,” as if no such data for flame retardants’ endocrine-disrupting activity exist.

In so writing, Rouhi correctly identifies the most pressing need in the flame retardants domain, which is for high-quality data to support scientific clarity in risk-benefit analyses of potential replacements. Cheryl Hogue professionally elucidates the subtleties in “EPA Targets Flame Retardants” (page 34).

But Rouhi fails to acknowledge that industry’s phobia toward regulatory control is primarily responsible for the data gap. Rouhi insults the American people en masse. She reinforces the counterproductive name-calling that often accompanies chemical enterprise frustration over safety challenges to chemicals. And just when ACS has designated the legacy of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” as a National Historic Chemical Landmark, she endorses a personal attack on a scientist-advocate.

Blum has been a highly effective leader in alerting the world that fire-safety standards subject people to unacceptable flame-retardant toxicities. She has been key to exposing deplorable tactics to promote unsafe flame retardants. So it’s no wonder she might bristle in an interview. To label her as “shrill” is unfair and unreasonable, and it obfuscates the crux of the matter: Experts often don’t see too clearly beyond their own domains and interests. C&EN can promote a balance between fire safety and toxic chemical exposures by presenting facts and opinions from all sides of all essential specializations. Has C&EN fallen prey to that deluding cultural seduction of kowtowing to ACS insider political power when, above all else, the world needs C&EN to honor the science?

We do compliment C&EN on Alexander Tullo’s “A Polymeric Solution” (page 39) and hope for sustainability’s sake that technically effective, demonstrably full-life-cycle, nontoxic flame retardants soon become available.

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Terrence J. Collins
Carnegie Mellon University

Cynthia de Wit
Stockholm University

Martin J. Mulvihill
University of California, Berkeley

David H. Roberts
Brandeis University

Ruthann Rudel
Silent Spring Institute

David Sedlak
University of California, Berkeley

Heather Stapleton
Duke University

Marta Venier
Indiana University

Thanks for a thorough analysis of the controversy over flame retardants in furniture. I was privileged to overlap with Arlene Blum in the laboratory of Ignacio Tinoco Jr. at UC Berkeley. I have full confidence in her analytical ability and objectivity.

All sides agree on the need for a smoldering cigarette flammability standard. At issue is the need for an open-flame flammability standard.

C&EN reports on convincing evidence from a 1988 National Institute of Standards & Technology calorimetry study that a high percentage of flame retardants greatly limit the heat release from burning polyurethane foam and increase the available escape time before flashover to a major conflagration. Thus, it would be appropriate to write a new standard focused on limiting heat release and flashover.

To promote innovation in fire prevention, it would be desirable to write standards that focus on such end points rather than on analytical methods. To minimize toxicity, it would be desirable to use structure-activity results to avoid flame-retardant structures prone to DNA base alkylation or endocrine disruption.

Finally, I am glad that C&EN clarified the incorrect assertion that the Polyurethane Foam Association provided a grant to Blum. I urge the state of California and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to write fire prevention regulations based on rigorous, reproducible chemical evidence.

Eric Wickstrom


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