An uphill climb
Mountaineer and chemist Arlene Blum gets fired up about flame retardants
Chemist and mountaineer Arlene Blum did some impressive things during the 1970s. She became the first American woman to attempt Mount Everest, led the first, all-women, U.S. team to the summit of Nepal’s Annapurna I, and she helped get Tris, a carcinogenic chemical fire retardant, out of children’s sleepwear.
She took a 26-year hiatus from science to climb more mountains, raise her daughter and complete her memoir Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life. “Then in 2006, I discovered this same Tris that we helped get out of kids pajamas was in couches and baby products,” she says.
Now 64, she’s returned to science as founder and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, which aims to provide unbiased scientific data to encourage more informed decisions about chemicals in consumer products.
Blum, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., will be speaking in Reno about climbing mountains and reducing chemical exposure at a Jan. 23 fundraiser at the Patagonia Service Center for Snowlands Network, an advocacy group for public lands in the Sierra Nevada.
Fire retardants, like PBDE, are used to prevent or delay an object from combusting. Blum says people in the U.S. carry some of the highest levels of PBDE in the world. Fire retardants are linked to cancer, neurological and reproductive problems, especially in children.
“When they compare mothers and children, usually the toddler would have three to four times the level of their parents,” says Blum. “The chemicals go through the placenta, concentrate in breast milk and concentrate in dust, and babies crawl in dust and put their hands in their mouths. These can be in our children for a very long time. There are hundreds of studies showing harm in animals, and we’re starting to see some in humans.”
Children can also be exposed through a wide variety of baby products not necessarily thought to be highly flammable: nursing pillows, changing pads, strollers, baby carriers—“anything with foam,” says Blum. So kids may be protected against an unlikely fire, but not from the chemicals in the flame retardant.
However, the only state that requires fire retardants in these products is California, so Blum says Nevadans are lucky to have a choice to buy them locally or from other states. She suggests people avoid furniture and baby products labeled as meeting California furniture flammability standards.
“There’s no fire hazard from nursing pillows,” says Blum. “But the companies that make these chemicals are very aggressive in wanting to keep using the chemicals in these products.” This past August, legislation in California to stop flammability standards for baby products posing no real fire hazard was unsuccessful due to hard lobbying from the chemical industry.
“The work I’ve done has been really challenging, and I say if I hadn’t been a mountain climber, I might never have succeeded,” says Blum. “Most of the things, people told me were considered close to impossible. I climb really hard mountains, and that’s what I’m doing now—climbing a really hard mountain to try to stop the use of toxic chemicals.