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In 1977, three months after Berkeley scientist Arlene Blum climbed Mount Everest and wrote a paper about cancer-causing chemicals in children’s pajamas, the U.S. government banned kids’ sleepwear treated with tris, the dangerous flame-retardant additive.
Today, the winner of 2022 American Alpine Club top honors remains passionate about adventure — and fire retardants.
“I wrote an article, believe it or not, in the 1970s — 50 years ago nearly — saying that we don’t need flame retardants in our mountaineering and camping tents, and they’re still there,” said Blum, founder and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, a Berkeley nonprofit with a mission to reduce harmful chemicals in people and the environment.
Noting that California still has standards that require flame retardants in tents while many states don’t, Blum said, “There have been studies that [show] when people just pitch the tents, they get the flame retardants on their hands, and when they sleep in the tents, it’s in the air. They’re in children’s play tents, also,” she said.
Getting rid of such retardants in tents is among her organization’s goals, which include working to remove per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and other classes of deleterious chemical compounds from everyday goods.
“You don’t need PFAS in your socks. You don’t need them in your bathing suit,” said Blum, whose group plans to meet with manufacturers of outdoor products in September, its first in-person gathering since the pandemic hit. Some producers, such as Black Diamond Equipment, are making water-resistant, high-performance outdoor apparel without the additives, she said.
“There’s legislation right now in seven states, including California, around banning the use of PFAS in textiles. I think that legislation has got the outdoor industry paying attention,” said Blum, who has a doctorate in biophysical chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley.
Blum, 77, who led the history-making American Women’s Himalayan Expedition in 1978 (she details the all-U.S., all-female climb in her book “Annapurna: A Woman’s Place”), and co-led the first women’s team to scale Denali in Alaska in 1970, points to other successes with restricting dangerous chemicals.
“We were able to help with changing a bad California furniture flammability standard — that’s a big deal,” said Blum.
“It used to be that, in pretty much everyone’s couch, the foam was 5% by weight a toxic flame retardant,” said Blum, noting that studies have shown that the average American child has lost between three and five IQ points as a result of such compounds, which also contribute to cancer, immune, neurological and reproductive problems across the population.
In 2013, five years after Blum established the Green Science Policy Institute (following a 26-year break from science in which she raised her daughter), California Gov. Jerry Brown authorized standards that allowed makers of furniture and baby products not to treat their items with what environmentalists call ineffective, unhealthful flame retardants. The chemical industry then sued the state, and lost, Blum said, ultimately making for increased fire safety for all.
More recently, efforts to get carpet makers and food-packaging manufacturers to remove PFAS from their products proved fruitful in 2020.
And in June 2021, after Green Science publicized a study published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters in which researchers found high fluorine levels, revealing probable potentially toxic PFAS in waterproof mascara and liquid lipsticks, lawmakers in both houses of U.S. Congress introduced the bipartisan No PFAS in Cosmetics Acts.
While Blum acknowledged that the bills so far haven’t resulted in new laws, she said, “We’ve heard that at least part of the cosmetics industry is removing their PFAS. That’s really good.”
In her own daily life, Blum is a discerning consumer who keeps an eye out for items with possible harmful chemicals. She recommends visiting her website in which four-minute videos describe six groups of “chemicals of concern” that best be avoided — antimicrobials; bisphenols and phthalates; some solvents; certain metals; as well as flame retardants and PFAS found in products ranging from paint, adhesives and flooring to plastic toys and even cash register receipts.
At the same time, she acknowledged, “You know, you just do the best you can. We’re not going to be chemical-free.” Consumers, though, should be aware that phased-out chemicals often are replaced by others that are equally harmful.
Blum, who views mountaineering as a metaphor for facing life’s challenges, attributes her accomplishments in mountain climbing and science at a time when few women pursued those vocations, to being determined and having vision.
“I’ve always had an acute case of ‘tikkun olam.’ Do you know that phrase? It means healing the world. I’ve always wanted to make the world a better place, and I have a kind of a gift, I guess, of seeing what could be. And once I see what could be, I feel compelled to achieve it. I’m very goal-oriented, whether it’s getting the first team of women to climb Denali or Annapurna, or solving complicated scientific problems. But there’s usually a greater good involved.
“I’ve never felt like I was that smart, but I have come to realize that I’m good at having these visions or ideas of what should be; and once I have the vision, really trying to get others to share it … to get a team of people together so we could all climb toward the summit, whether it’s a Himalayan summit, or the summit of a healthier world,” she said.
In February, Blum — a member of the California Hall of Fame, Alameda County Women’s Hall of Fame for Science, Engineering & Technology and part of a Dove soap “Women Who Should Be Famous” campaign, among numerous accolades — received another big award: an honorary membership from the American Alpine Club in Colorado.
“Back when I did my climbing, being a woman climber was tough, and people worried about women being strong enough and having the skills necessary to climb the highest mountains. It was really rewarding, nearly half a century later, to have the American Alpine Club give me their highest honor and a standing ovation,” she said.
Blum, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household in Chicago, describes how she broke out from a sheltered background and dysfunctional childhood in her 2005 memoir “Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life,” which she calls a “big therapy project” that took her 20 years to write.
Having discovered the life-affirming Jewish Renewal movement, Blum, who no longer climbs mountains, said she is looking forward to the return of the cross-country season and to snorkeling and diving in the Raja Ampat Islands in Indonesia later this year.
On a professional level, she continues to be optimistic about efforts to stop the use of harmful chemicals in everyday products: “I feel very lucky to have a chance to do work that contributes to everybody being healthier.” she said. “It’s a great privilege and opportunity.”
To learn more about or donate to Green Science Policy Institute, visit https://greensciencepolicy.org/.