Fighting harmful substances with fire: a portrait of Arlene Blum

  • 2 februari 2021

Last October, the European Commission adopted the EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (see EmConSoil network newsletter #2). This strategy includes prohibiting the use of the most harmful chemicals in consumer products such as toys, childcare articles, cosmetics, detergents, food contact materials and textiles, unless proven essential for society.

While increasing consumer awareness should not be underestimated as a driving force behind policy decisions, it is mainly thanks to a handful of unquenchable go-getters that things come to a change. When it comes to banning PFAS and (brominated) fire retardants from everyday products, one of those indefatigable perseverers is without doubt Arlene Blum.

Brominated flame retardants in children’s sleeping wear

As a researcher at the University of Berkeley, California in the mid-1970’s, Blum found that brominated flame retardants (which accounted for up to 10% of the mass of the fabrics in which they were used) occurred in the urine of babies wearing treated pajamas. Research also had shown that these substances were mutagenic and potentially carcinogenic and thus, partly as a result of her research, the use of brominated flame retardants in children's nightwear was banned in 1977.

Green Science Policy Institute

After years of absence - an absence during which she was mainly involved in mountaineering and writing - Blum discovered that the same products her research had helped ban from children's garments, were still used for furniture treatment. For this reason, Blum co-founded the Green Science Policy Institute (GSP) in 2007. The main goal of the institute was to bring scientific research results into policy decisions, in order to protect human health and the environment from toxic chemicals. The main strategy of the Green Science Policy Institute can be summarised as

[SCIENCE + COMMUNICATION] + [GOVERNMENT & BUSINESS STAKEHOLDERS] = CHANGE

In addition to this objective, the Institute wants to inform end users and promote policy and purchasing decisions to reduce the use of certain classes of harmful chemicals. In support of this objective, the website provides guidelines for both consumers and manufacturers. 

Six Classes of harmful chemicals

To make things easier (there are more than 80.000 different chemicals used in the US), the Green Science Policy Institute introduced the “Six Classes program”. This program focuses on reducing the use of entire classes of chemicals of concern, rather than phasing out problematic chemicals one at a time. Many of these chemicals have not been well studied and their impacts on human and environmental health are not understood. Even so, chemicals known to be harmful are commonly found in consumer products. Moreover, when a harmful chemical is phased out, often after years of research and advocacy, the replacement is likely to be a “chemical cousin” with similar structure and potential for harm. The Six Classes approach can prevent such “regrettable substitutions” and accelerate reductions in toxics use.  

The six classes of harmful chemicals

Achievements

After almost 15 years of advocating, the Green Science Policy Institute has stopped several unneeded flammability standards and prevented hundreds of millions of pounds of toxic flame retardants from being added to consumer products. In addition, their proven strategy of communicating unbiased scientific data towards decision makers (from both government and business) has led to major manufacturers moving away from PFAS in carpets, food packaging, furniture, outdoor gear, clothing and firefighting foam.

More info

Arlene Blum, the Green Science Policy institute and their many projects and achievements can be found on the official websites of Arlene Blum, the Green Science Policy Institute and PFAS Central.