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Taking on industry in the name of safety

Arlene Blum, Ph.D., has crossed mountains and conquered mountainous obstacles.

Her unique blend of career paths has her coming to Colorado on a multi-tasking mission: She’ll be speaking at Conference on World Affairs panels on extreme living and environmental health, approach the EPA to talk about toxic flame retardants, and cap the week off with an induction into the Mountaineering Hall of Fame. Blum wrote about her career in an essay published in Thinking Reed, an alumni publication for Reed College in Portland, Oregon. She agreed to have this excerpt from that essay reprinted here.

My memoir of mountains and molecules called Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life describes how my life changed after Bruce Carson, a brilliant young climber and environmentalist, tragically fell to his death through a summit cornice on our expedition to Mount Trisul in India in 1975. Devastated by the loss, I decided to continue Bruce’s work of helping protect the world’s environment. And so I found my current adventure: bringing science out of the laboratory and into the policy arena in an effort to reduce toxics and protect our health and environment.

My work began when Bruce Ames, a biochemistry professor at the University of California at Berkeley, suggested I study the flame-retardant chemical tris (2,3,-dibromopropyl) phosphate, commonly known as Tris, which was used in children’s pajamas in the 1970s. Ames suspected Tris caused cancer and was worried that most of the children in America were exposed to it every night. To prevent children’s burn injuries, manufacturers added organohalogen flame retardants to pajamas. No one apparently considered that the flame retardant would move from the sleepwear to inside the children or that most chemicals in this family were known to be toxic, long-lived and likely to bioaccumulate.

Tris, the most widely used flame retardant, was layered onto pajamas in amounts of about 10 percent of the weight of the fabric. When I added a small amount of Tris to petri plates of growing bacteria, it caused a very high level of mutations or changes in the bacterial DNA. Tris was a potent mutagen and likely to contribute to cancer.

And almost all the children in America, including newborn infants, wore Tristreated pajamas — a tragic example of the good intention of preventing burn injuries gone very wrong.

At about this time I was invited to join the 1976 American Bicentennial Everest Expedition, the first time an American woman had the opportunity to climb the world’s highest mountain. Although I was writing an article warning of the dangers of Tris, I couldn’t turn down this invitation. I continued working on the article while climbing amidst the ice falls on Everest. At 21,000 feet, I received the final galley proof from Bruce Ames, edited it, and sent it by mail runner back to Katmandu.

Although scientific articles traditionally call for further study rather than action, Bruce and I subtitled our piece, “The main flame retardant in children’s pajamas is a mutagen and should not be used.” It was published as a lead article in Science three months after our team reached the summit of Everest. Three months later Tris was banned in children’s sleepwear — an example of how good science can influence policy to protect human health.

When Ronald Regan took office in 1980, he cancelled funding for environmental work and moved brilliant EPA scientists to desk jobs. I had always dreamed of walking across the Himalayas, and his term seemed the right time to take a break from my science policy work. This break lasted 26 years, much longer than I could ever have expected.

During those years, I led the first ascent of 21,000-foot-high Bhrigupanth in the Indian Himalaya and hiked 3,000 miles along the Great Himalaya Range of Bhutan, Nepal, and India. My favorite adventure began with the birth of my daughter Annalise Gomersall Blum in 1987. Motherhood and memoir writing eclipsed mountains and molecules while Annalise was young. I wanted to fully enjoy raising my daughter and also to understand how my own childhood and my years at Reed in the 1960s nurtured my climbing and science careers. Annalise attended third grade at the Cloud Forest School in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and eighth grade at Lincoln School in Kathmandu while I worked on writing my memoir. Each year we enjoyed mountain trips: in the Cascades and Sierra when she was young and the Himalaya, Andes, Alps as she grew older.

In September 2006, with my memoir, Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life, finished, Annalise starting college, and my mother having recently passed away, I wanted to return to science policy work and find a way to use my knowledge of chemistry to reduce toxics and protect public health. Although I had no idea how to return to a career I had left 26 years earlier, I attended a green chemistry meeting in Oakland and found my next mountain. Since I believe working with industry can lead to the most rapid change, I introduced myself to Bob Leudeka, the director of the Polyurethane Foam Association who wore a suit and stood out from the casually clad activists and scientists. When I told him I had studied flame retardants decades ago, he looked very interested. “Flame retardants are a big problem for us,” he said.

Surprised, I asked him to explain. “The foam we make for California furniture has to be flame-retardant and the chemical penta (pentabrominated diphenyl ether), which we have used for years, was banned a couple of years ago. I don’t know much about the replacements. Our chemical suppliers tell us everything is fine, but they told us Penta was fine too. Maybe you can give us some advice.”

“What chemicals do you use?” I asked. His response astonished me. The foam manufacturers were using Tris, the same flame retardant my research had helped remove from children’s sleepwear 30 years earlier.

Bob invited me to be the keynote speaker at the annual polyurethane foam meeting in the fall to tell the chemical industry about the toxicity of Tris.

“Why don’t you tell them yourself that Tris is a mutagen and carcinogen?”

I asked. “You don’t need me.”

“I can’t tell them,” he replied.

“They’d kill me!” “And you want me to tell them?” My stomach turned a somersault, but my climbing courage returned, and I agreed to give the talk. The audience at the meeting would include the companies who manufactured Tris and similar chemicals. As I unearthed my old lecture notes and learned that little had changed since 1980, I became more worried, about both the world’s continued exposure to Tris and the reception for my talk. Friends told me they would wait outside to help me escape in case the audience turned into an angry mob.

At the meeting I listened with incredulity as the chemical producers claimed Tris and its chemical cousin flame retardants were perfectly safe. Feeling very nervous, I began my talk with a slide of Rip Van Winkle and admitted I had been away from chemistry for decades. During those years the toxic qualities of Tris had not gone away. We knew Tris migrated out of clothing into children’s bodies, and that you could find toxic Tris breakdown products in their urine after they wore treated pajamas. A long round of applause from the foam industry and a cold silence from the chemical industry followed my presentation. My “Rip Van Winkle” lecture marked the beginning of my most challenging and important challenge, bringing good science into policy to stop the use of toxic chemicals and protect the health of the world.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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