Keeping the Flame

In 1977, Arlene Blum’s research led to a ban on flame retardants in children’s pajamas. Thirty years later, she was floored to find the same chemicals in padded furniture. Photo by Ariel Zambelich

Thirty years later, Arlene Blum ’66 scores key victory over flame-retardants—again.

by William Abernathy ’88

As you read this, you may well be sitting on some sort of cushion—a cushion in all likelihood filled with flame retardant chemicals. When you sat down, the cushion ejected an invisible cloud of organohalogens and organophosphates, some of which you have by now inhaled. But it’s no use holding your breath—if you’re like most Americans, you already have measurable quantities of flame retardants in your blood. 

The health effects of these chemicals are not fully understood. They can damage your endocrine system, interfere with your nerves, even—possibly—give you cancer. Maybe they’ll do nothing. Eventually, your body will get rid of them, and they’ll find their way to the ocean. Because they take years—even decades—to break down, they’ll bioaccumulate, working their way back up the food chain.

Are you still sitting comfortably? 

Arlene Blum has waged a long campaign to scale back the load of flame retardants on people and the environment. In recent years, the battle has revolved around Technical Bulletin (TB) 117, a strict furniture flammability standard that requires all padded furniture sold in California to resist combustion when it comes into contact with an open flame. Despite its good intentions, TB 117 effectively meant that virtually every padded chair and couch in America was stuffed with flame retardants.

Her long road to TB 117 should sound familiar to many Reedies. Coming to Reed from Chicago, she majored in chemistry, inspired in part by Prof. Jane Shell ’59 [1962–65]. She studied organic chemistry with Prof. Marsh Cronyn ’40 [1952–89] and inorganic with Prof. Tom Dunne [1963-95]. Her thesis, written with Prof. Fred Ayres [1940–70], analyzed fumarole emissions from Mount Hood. This combined the two passions, both kindled at Reed, that would shape her life—chemistry and mountaineering. 

“We had one comfortable chair in our house,” recalls Reed roommate Sylvia Paull ’67, “and Arlene took possession of it... she’d read Agatha Christie mystery novels, nonstop, and she ate sweets.” 

“Friday night she’d disappear... and she’d go mountain climbing all weekend,” Paull says. “It was like a transformation. It looked like one of those ‘before and after’ diet ads. She’d come home Sunday night athletic, trim, glowing.”

Attaining her chemistry doctorate from University of California, Berkeley, in 1971, Blum punctuated her research into the structure of RNA with increasingly hair-raising expeditions to far-off peaks. As a woman, she met fierce resistance in both disciplines, which she answered with quiet perseverance. “She’s very slow,” says Paull, “Incredibly slow. When I’ve been climbing with her, she’ll start two hours before anyone else even gets up. But she never stops.” 

After losing a climbing partner in a fall in the Himalayas, Blum vowed in 1975 to focus on “practical research that would have a direct positive impact on the world.” She began working in the lab of Berkeley chemist Bruce Ames, who urged her to research Tris—known to chemists as tris (2, 3,-dibromopropyl) phosphate—a flame retardant that was widely and heavily used in children’s pajamas. 

“We found a child who’d never worn Tris-treated pajamas.” Blum says. “We had the child wear Tris-treated pajamas for one night, and we found Tris breakdown products in her urine.” 

“She looked at it,” Ames says of the chemical found in the child’s urine sample. “It was screamingly mutagenic.” What followed was a lead article Blum and Ames published in Science with the blunt subtitle, “The main flame retardant in children’s pajamas is a mutagen and should not be used.” Three months later, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned Tris in children’s clothing.

“That’s how things should be,” Blum says. “You do good science, and it changes policy.”

This victory did not lessen the conflict she increasingly felt between the lab and the outdoors. In 1978, she led an all-woman ascent of 26,545-ft Annapurna I, the world’s 10th-highest peak, widely acknowledged as its deadliest. Though the expedition was a success, with two women summiting, two others died during a second summit attempt.

Her research contributed to a 1979 ban on dibromochloropropane, an organohalide fumigant and nematocide that remains detectable in groundwater to this day. In 1980, she led another all-women’s expedition on the first ascent of India’s 22,217-foot Mount Bhrigupanth. The tension between adventures and halogenated hydrocarbons came to a head that year with the election of Ronald Reagan, a president openly hostile to the regulations that gave her research teeth.

She chose the outdoors. 

“I really regretted not having an academic career,” Blum says. “I was an assistant professor at Wellesley, and then I had a job at Berkeley, where I taught and did research, and I gave those both up.” 

She spent the next 26 years trekking, writing, and raising her daughter, but never lost her passion for chemistry. At a chemistry meeting in 2006, she encountered Bob Luedeka, director of the Polyurethane Foam Association. The foam industry had used a flame retardant called “Penta” (pentabrominated diphenyl ether) which was banned in 2005, due to its toxicity, persistence, and tendency to bioaccumulate. Chemical suppliers had assured Luedeka that Penta was safe—right until they withdrew it from the market. When she asked what the foam manufacturers were using to replace Penta, his response floored her—Tris, the same chemical she’d gotten out of kids’ pajamas 30 years before.

At Luedaka’s invitation, Blum dug out her ancient notes and delivered a stemwinder on flame retardants to a national meeting of polyurethane foam makers. This time, however, the flame-retardant industry fought back, unleashing a public relations campaign featuring sham consumer groups, scare videos, and hit pieces on Blum in industry magazines. Nonetheless, the weight of evidence began to tip the scales against the flame retardants.

To aid this struggle, Blum founded the Green Science Policy Institute and recruited leading experts in toxicology and fire safety. Five bills on flame retardants were snuffed in the California legislature as flame-retardant lobbyists spent over $23 million to protect the dubiously effective, but highly profitable TB 117. Repeatedly given 11th-hour reprieves, the flame-retardant rule was finally killed by the same executive who gave it life in 1975—Governor Jerry Brown.

“Resistance to Arlene is futile,” chuckles Sylvia Paull. “I have learned that many a time.”

Blum declines credit for the victory—she maintains that her only contribution has been to educate people—but her role is undeniable. While she is happy to see a new generation of home furnishings that won’t be pumped full of persistent organic pollutants, the flame-retardant manufacturers haven’t quit. They are now pushing to impose standards that would pump computer and electronic cases full of flame retardants.

Outstaffed and outfunded, Blum seems unfazed. “Everything that I’ve worked on has seemed impossible,” she says, “and then we’ve succeeded.”