From Climbing Mountains to Cleaning Couches: The Woman Eliminating Toxic Chemicals From Our Lives

Some challenges are worth taking on more than once. That's what Arlene Blum decided after realizing her work to reduce toxic chemicals in the home was in jeopardy.

(Photo: Courtesy Arlene Blum)

Mar 23, 2015· 3 MIN READ
A Wolfe has covered arts, entertainment, and politics for Good, Vice, Flaunt, and other publications.

Arlene Blum took 20 years to write her memoir, Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life. This isn’t surprising, considering her life has taken shape as a constant and gradual learning process, with very few resting moments.

As a young scientist before the age of green consumer awareness, Blum had put common household chemicals in the news when she published a paper on toxic flame retardants in kids’ pajamas in 1976. Within months, the paper led to a complete ban of the chemicals in consumer products, which made headlines and got America talking about chemicals and science.

It was only a few years after the chemicals ban that Blum quit science, focusing her time on writing, climbing mountains, and parenting. But in the early 2000s, after 26 years away from science, an itch for scientific inquiry resurfaced. She’d been independently researching flame retardants again, when she was pulled back into science and advocacy.

“When my cat got sick, I said, I think it could be the new chemical that hadn’t been around. I asked, and they measured the amount of flame retardant in my dust and my cat,” Blum said.

The results were astounding. There was no direct link of the chemicals to her cat’s hyperthyroidism, but there was definitely an extraordinarily high amount of chemicals in both the cat’s fur and the dust. At the time, hyperthyroidism in felines had already reached near-epidemic levels, a rise that began back around 1977, with no known cause.

Blum wondered if her cat’s illness had to do with the chemicals she had already studied decades earlier, and so she began her research by looking at couches and their foam. She found that the same toxic flame-retardant chemicals once used in kids’ pajamas had worked their way into our furniture, with little to no regulation.

After this amazing discovery, Blum threw herself into science again, creating a new nonprofit in 2007, Green Science Policy Institute, with a corresponding website meant to educate the public with facts and statistics, so consumers could make healthier purchases. Just one year later, she was awarded an Encore Purpose Prize, an immediate validation of her new work and her return to science. At one time, she had lamented her trek away from an academic career—despite the pinnacles of mountain climbing—but with the prize, she felt she was on the track that was meant for her.

While some may be quick to label Blum an activist, she hardly considers herself one.

“I just used science in the public interest,” she said. “We brought science to policy makers. The problem with scientific papers is at the end of them, the next step is more study. All they ever call for is more study. In the case of the kids’ pajamas, when we discovered the toxic flame retardants, the result just said that toxic flame retardants shouldn’t be used in kids' pajamas.”

Those results were clear, and when presented, common sense said a ban should be put in place, but science and policy has changed since then.

“There wasn’t the same industry lobbying that there is right now,” Blum said, remembering how quickly her 1976 paper had led to legislative action.

“It was about six years before the governor said [furniture standards] would be changed. The big news now is that furniture increasingly does not have flame retardants.”

In a twist of political fate, Blum points out that it was California Gov. Jerry Brown who was in office when the chemicals went into the furniture, and it was Brown who was recently able to sign them away. It’s the kind of full-circle story that seems to follow Blum everywhere she goes. Even her Green Science Policy Institute, a nonprofit that relies on her research, diplomacy, and resilience, relates back to her earlier life.

“I grew up in a very small house with adults who didn’t really like each other, who chain-smoked and watched live TV and argued,” she said. “From an early age, I was always trying to keep the peace.”

Blum never forgets where she came from, and perhaps that’s why her work, while complicated and highly sophisticated, tends to appeal to laypeople, getting them interested in scientific discoveries. She’s also started a website called Six Classes, which breaks down the endless number of harmful chemicals into six classes of chemicals, so people can better understand how they work, what they do, and which ones might be better than others. For instance, BPAs or BPSs?

“The replacement for BPA is BPS, which is possibly worse, and why we’re talking about classes. You have to ask yourself, do we actually need this?”

Her new project with Six Classes has her studying the chemicals in stains and water repellants, what you might use to seal a wooden deck.

“The ones that we’ve been studying are toxic, and they are so persistent that they wouldn’t break down. When you make chemicals that last longer than geologic time, that’s longer than mankind.”

Despite all of the challenges, Blum is enduringly optimistic. In September of this year, Counterpoint Press will be reprinting her 1980 book, Annapurna: A Woman’s Place, which details her leadership of an all-woman team ascending Annapurna I, the world’s 10th-highest peak.

“It takes a lot of curiosity and optimism to change the furniture standards that have been around for 38 years. You just have to be optimistic,” she said, a sentiment that echoes the final sentence of her memoir, one she still remembers fondly:

“I continue to believe that if each of us takes slow, steady steps, we can break a trail to the summits of our dreams.”