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 Blum, on a history-making expedition in 1976, framed by Mt. Everest. (Photo courtesy Arlene Blum)

Down from the mountains
Having braved Everest and Annapurna, biochemist Arlene Blum is back on a trail she blazed 30 years ago - conquering the toxic dangers in our living rooms

| 12 September 2007

Armed with wanderlust and a campus doctorate in biophysical chemistry, Arlene Blum spent the 1970s straddling the peaks of two very different worlds. In 1977, she and noted Berkeley biochemist Bruce Ames warned of significant health risks posed by flame-retardant chemicals in fabrics, plastics, carpets, and other consumer products; their findings, published in the journal Science, laid the groundwork for a federal ban on treating children's pajamas with Tris, an additive shown to cause cancer in animals. A year later she made history by leading the first all-female team to reach the 26,500-foot summit of Annapurna I, the highest peak in the Himalayas - a feat underwritten by sales of 15,000 T-shirts-cum-manifestos bearing the decree "A Woman's Place Is on Top," and recounted in Blum's bestselling book Annapurna: A Woman's Place.

Squaring health and fire safety
"The Fire Retardant Dilemma," the third in a series of one-day symposia, brings together contributors from industry, government, academia, and citizen groups to share information and research results about new fire-retardant technologies, materials, and policies.

The morning session, from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., is open to the public. Scheduled speakers include Stanford biologist David Epel, environmental scientist Susan Klosterhaus, and Terry Collins, the Thomas Lord Professor of Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, among others.

The symposium takes place Thursday, Sept. 20, in 150 University Hall. For more details or to reserve a seat, e-mail FRDilemma@gmail.com.

This precarious balancing act between often-conflicting careers ended with Ronald Reagan's ascent to the White House in 1980, and what looked to be four years of tough slogging ahead for toxics-policy reformers. Blum, who had "always dreamed of walking across the Himalayas," reckoned her moment had finally arrived. Then four years turned into eight, and eight into 12, and Blum's detour from academia stretched into a quarter-century devoted to such pursuits as trek-leading, memoir-writing, leadership training, and child-rearing.

While the world of science pressed on in her absence, though, the toxics landscape remained much as she left it. Now - horrified to discover that the fire retardants she flagged three decades ago as likely to cause cancer and other maladies are not only still being added to household products like couches, mattresses, and electronics equipment, but are apt to become even more pervasive - she's plunged back into chemistry with a vengeance. And this time, as the saying goes, it's personal.

"It's in my dust, and it's in my cat, and it's in my furniture," she says, referring to readings of brominated fire retardants at her Berkeley home. She calls her black cat, Midnight, the "mascot" for her efforts to rid America's furniture of toxic chemicals.

Blum was preparing a keynote address on the mutagenic properties of Tris for the annual meeting of the Polyurethane Foam Association - whose members, in order to meet California's stringent fire-protection standards, are required to add fire-retardant chemicals to many of their products - when Midnight, the older of her two cats, was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism. Her vet told her the disease, unseen in cats until 1979, now constitutes an epidemic.

"He said, 'I think it's caused by a chemical,'" she recalls. "And then I looked at the structure of this PBDE [polybrominated diphenyl ether], a flame retardant that's been used in furniture in California since the 1980s, and it looked similar to thyroxine" - a hormone that, at elevated levels, can result in weight loss, hyperactivity, and increased appetite, and is now a leading cause of death in older cats. Midnight, for example, has dropped half of her 14 pounds over the past year.

When Blum learned of a veterinary epidemiologist doing research on household dust and hyperthyroid cats, she sent off a sample of Midnight's blood and her own house dust. The blood, she says, contained "very high" levels of PBDEs, while the dust registered a PBDE level of 95 parts per million, a reading she calls "phenomenally high."

"You want to know, where did this dust come from?" she says. "We don't know for sure it made the cat sick. But I have the sick cat, I have the high level of fire retardants in my dust. So I got the gun."


At her home in Berkeley, biochemist Arlene Blum uses an X-ray gun to check for toxic chemicals in a visitor's couch cushion. (Barry Bergman photo)
 

The gun was for science, not violence. It's actually a portable XRF (X-ray fluorescence) device that can detect the presence of various chemicals in, for example, the polyurethane foam in household furniture. After she found alarmingly high levels of toxic flame retardants in some of her chairs, her couch, and her television, Blum and a friend brought the gun to an Ikea store. They spent three hours testing the inventory, which ran the gamut from no flame retardants at all to extremely high levels. She has since held several open-house cushion testings for others who wonder what might be in their furniture.

She's especially interested in collecting data from households with hyperthyroid cats, and hopes eventually to publish her findings. An on-campus testing session is scheduled for Monday, Sept. 17. [See box below for details.]

Last month EPA scientists, reporting on a study of 23 cats in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, wrote that "cats are being consistently exposed to PBDEs, an endocrine-disrupting environmental contaminant," and that booming rates of hyperthyroidism could be linked to toxic flame retardants in house dust and pet food. They also noted "growing concern" over the possibility - thus far unproven - that PBDEs could have similar effects on humans, the only other mammal to suffer from hyperthyroidism in significant numbers.

"[P]et cats," the report concluded, "may serve as sentinels to better assess human exposure and adverse health outcomes related to low-level but chronic PBDE exposure."

More chemicals? Or safer cigarettes?

Blum, who taught several courses at Berkeley decades ago, is now a visiting scholar with the Center on Institutions and Governance. But don't look for her at a desk or a lab bench: Like some outdoorsy Aristotle, she prefers to discuss her work while traversing a fire trail, and walks the Berkeley hills on an almost daily basis. (She wrote parts of her second book, 2005's Breaking Trail, in a clearing at the crest of one of her favorite local hikes.) While her climbing days are behind her, she still leads treks in the Himalayas.

But she's focusing most of her abundant energy these days on chemistry. She recently served as science adviser on AB 706, a bill by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) that would ban all brominated and chlorinated chemical flame retardants from household furniture and bedding sold in California, and is spearheading a one-day seminar on "The Fire Retardant Dilemma" on Sept. 20.

Is your furniture toxic?
Arlene Blum will be on campus Monday, Sept. 17, to check for toxic flame retardants with a portable XRF device. Members of the campus community are invited to bring foam cushions from couches and other home furniture to 775 Tan Hall between noon and 2 p.m.

By outlawing two entire classes of toxic chemicals, explains Blum, the legislation - which, at press time, faced an uncertain fate in the state Senate - represents a departure from most previous such measures, which typically targeted a single chemical. When the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned brominated Tris from children's sleepwear in 1977, for instance, the industry simply replaced it with chlorinated Tris, like its cousin a mutagen and suspected human carcinogen.

Chemicals in America "are innocent until proven guilty," says Blum, adding that there are safer ways to achieve fire safety, such as using less-toxic chemicals and demanding that tobacco companies sell only fire-safe cigarettes, as some states already do. "There's so much good research showing that these fire-retardant chemicals migrate out of furniture, bioaccumulate in people and animals, and cause a wide variety of toxic effects in animals - and yet not much has been done to take them out of our furniture."

Blum hopes to change that, in large part by calling upon her experience organizing corporate workshops during her hiatus from academia. When she learned that Tris was still being used in furniture, she recalls, "My first thought was to call the American Chemical Council, to see if they were interested in having me lead a workshop to come up with a new vision for the future."

The council didn't return her calls, but Blum is nonetheless committed to a collaborative approach to finding alternatives to toxic flame retardants. Next week's campus seminar, to take place in University Hall, is the third in a series, and will feature public talks by industry and government representatives, scholars, health-care experts, environmentalists, and citizen groups. [See box at top.] Participants will meet in closed session during the afternoon to share their perspectives and, with luck, make some progress toward finding acceptable solutions.

One more mountain

It's a tall order, perhaps, but that's never stopped Blum. Faced with the rampant sexism of the boys' club that ruled the climbing world in the 1970s, she led the first all-female teams to the summits of both Annapurna and Denali (Mt. McKinley), and made the first attempt by an American woman to conquer Everest.

"Women could come to base camp and help with the cooking," she says of the prevailing ethos in those days. "When I first dreamed up Annapurna, all the 8,000-meter peaks, the world's highest peaks, had been climbed by men, and not a single woman had climbed 8,000 meters, and everybody said women can't climb to 8,000 meters. But I'd put together the first women's expedition to reach the summit of Denali, so I knew women could do it if they were given the opportunity."

She brings the same confidence to the campaign to rid the nation's homes of toxic chemical flame retardants.

"The science research and the mountain expeditions involve the same process," she insists. "We all get these visions, but most people tend to ignore them. And they compel me. So if it's a vision of how a protein folds, or the structure of transfer-RNA, or how to reduce toxic chemicals in your furniture, or get women to climb an 8,000-meter peak, it's the same kind of thing.

"You have a goal that seems obvious - but other people may consider a little nuts, or impossible - and then you make it happen."