10 Questions for . . . Arlene Blum, Biophysical Chemist

Consumer Reports News: February 09, 2009 12:09 AM

In this installment of 10 Questions for . . . , Associate Editor Kimberly Janeway speaks with Arlene Blum, Ph.D., a biophysical chemist, author, and avid mountaineer. Blum recently won a Purpose Prize for 2008, which recognizes individuals 60 and older who are working to solve some of society's pressing problems. Blum won for her work to mobilize scientists, industry, and consumers to limit toxins in household products. Here's her take on toxins—including their impact on humans and consumer awareness—and the link between mountain climbing and her current work.

How are you working to limit toxins?
I'm executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, and we're bringing scientific unbiased peer-reviewed data to government, industry, and nongovernmental groups to help make more informed decisions about which chemicals should be used in consumer products. We've stopped 10 bad standards just by putting together good information and people.

What's your latest achievement here?
We mobilized scientists, firefighters, and nonprofits around the world to persuade the International Electrotechnical Commission to reject a flammability standard that would have resulted in adding unneeded and potentially toxic fire retardants in the plastic enclosures of all consumer electronics, such as computers and printers.

Are chemicals in household products tested for their long-term effects on human health and the environment?
Our government requires health information only for foods, drugs, and pesticides. Consumers have no protection at all against toxic chemicals in household products.

What's the standard in Europe?
In Europe they reverse the burden of proof. Manufacturers have to show that chemicals are safe before they introduce them. In the U.S., chemicals are innocent until proven guilty.

How do toxic chemicals affect human health?
A big chunk of cancers, birth defects, thyroid disease, and neurological and reproductive impairments may be environmentally based. Reducing toxic chemicals in our homes and our bodies could help reduce these problems. I'm especially concerned about the chemicals that are persistent and biocumulative. These chemicals can migrate out of our couches and our TVs into dust and then into our bodies. Some are fat-loving and can stay in our fat for a very long time. They can also wind up in soil and rivers and then make their way into our food supply.

In 1977, your research led to a ban of the fire retardant Tris in children's garments, including sleepwear. How did Tris affect children?
We found that as soon as kids put on pajamas, you could find cancer-causing breakdown products in their urine the next morning. Tris was immediately taken out of sleepwear, but it's now being used in furniture foam.

What chemicals should parents be most concerned about?
One thing that worries me is fire-retardant chemicals, including Tris. They can be found in high levels in furniture and juvenile products containing polyurethane foam, such as high chairs and strollers, because many of the big brands follow the California standard—the foam inside must resist a 12-second exposure to an open flame. If you live outside California, your furniture doesn't have to have potentially toxic chemicals in the foam.

What's your take on their potential harm?
The chemicals are hazardous to animals and likely to be hazardous to people with long-term exposures. Just sitting on a couch shouldn't be a problem. But the chemicals come out of the couch at a very slow rate all the time and are found in dust. Living in a home where the dust has high levels of the chemical for a long time can be a hazard, most likely during pregnancy and development. So pregnant women and young children are likely to be the most vulnerable.

What can consumers do in general?
They can solve the problem and get informed. If a chemical is thought to cause cancer or other serious adverse health effects in animals, then we don't want it in our products. Balance the need for the product and the potential harm. Do you need the antibacterial soap? If you're a surgeon, you want to kill the germs. Other people don't need that. Nobody has proved that antibacterial soaps are toxic, but we have proved they don't do any better than plain soap and water.

Arlene Blum Mt Everest Climb 1976 In 1976, you became the first American woman to attempt to climb Mt. Everest and in 1978 led the first American ascent of Annapurna I. (The photo shows her on Everest.) Is there a connection between climbing and your current work?
Absolutely. I feel this is my most challenging and important expedition. This is an opportunity to do incredible good for the health of the world. Every step of the way I'm told that what I'm doing is impossible. But I've stopped standards. And so I would like the chemical industry to stop putting toxins in our products. They can make green chemicals. This is a huge opportunity for consumers to say they don't want toxic chemicals in their products, their bodies, and most important, their children's bodies.

Essential information: Learn what our experts have to say about toxins in everyday products and read about greener cleaners. And add your comment below to tell us what concerns you have about toxins in household products, such as cleaning supplies.

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