Chemist Arlene Blum almost attended Harvard, but when she learned that their mountaineering club didn’t accept females, she went to MIT. When Blum came back to Harvard last week, she must have felt a little extra satisfied to be the woman who led the first all-female team up Annapurna, the world’s most difficult summit.

Blum was speaking at a series of educational events organized by the Office for Sustainability (OFS) to raise awareness for the presence of toxic chemicals in furniture and other building materials. The events included a conversation with student environmental leaders, a roundtable luncheon with Harvard faculty working on human health and toxics research, and a educational lecture attended by representatives from the health care industry, the Boston Fire Department, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, United States Green Building Council, Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, Clean Water Action, Silent Spring Institute, and Harvard Green Building Services, as well as architects and planners.

It is clear that Blum has a talent for telling stories. Along with her mountaineering stories, she brought to Harvard her extensive research and knowledge of toxic flame retardants that are prevalent in furniture and other household materials. Heather Henriksen, director of the Harvard Office for Sustainability introduced Blum as a scientist who is also an extremely effective communicator for her cause. The chemical researcher and UC Berkeley professor was a prominent voice in the fight against the use of flame retardants in the 1970’s before it made its way into the courtrooms, legislature, and media (covered in the recent documentary Toxic Hot Seat). Today, Blum works with the Green Science Policy Institute, which, in her words, aims “to encourage scientists to take their research and make statements so that things can change.”

Scientist Arlene Blum met with student environmental leaders from across campus to discuss her researchScientist Arlene Blum met with student environmental leaders from across campus to discuss her research

Blum knows from personal experience how important it is to make bold statements in science to get the attention of public policy. Her 1977 research paper and clear communication helped eliminate toxic flame retardants from children’s pajamas and, more recently, from foam furniture with the passage of TB 117-2013, a safer fire standard that makes the use of toxic flame retardants no longer mandatory in California. Blum made it clear that it is not about sacrificing fire safety or giving up on standards as a whole. However, flame retardants are dangerous and even ineffective in the ways they are currently being used. Blum highlighted safer possibilities, such as manufacturing smolder-resistant upholstery or changing the materials and design of furniture.

It is overwhelming to hear that there over 80,000 chemicals in existence, many of which are dangerous and detrimental to human health. Many of these harmful chemicals are used in manufactured products and are found in our daily environments as they off-gas into the air and settle into dust. To date, federal or state officials do not test most of these chemicals because humans do not directly ingest them. However, the chemicals can be transferred via the skin or after they settle into dust—washing hands and cleaning frequently are two common strategies for reducing exposure.

Arlene Blum’s composure as she grapples with the issue serves as a beacon of courage. She discussed the work of the Green Science Policy Institute and their efforts to impact policy changes with scientific information. The institute has created a webinar series, in which scientists organize harmful chemicals into six classes in order to provide graspable information to consumers and offer green chemistry alternatives for necessary chemicals. This methodological approach is a refreshing sign of positive activity amidst the realities of flame retardants.

Quick tips to reduce exposure from flame retardants from the Green Science Policy Institute

  • Avoid foam-filled products with a TB117 label
  • Make sure to wash your hands frequently, and always before eating
  • Keep dust levels down by damp dusting and wet mopping
  • Vacuum regularly with a HEPA filter
  • Open windows to improve indoor air quality

While Blum’s visit evoked the expected concerns and anxiety over the evidence incriminating flame retardants in long-term health effects and the ensuing public policy contentions, her story inspires. Her personal fight against flame retardants reveals the difficulties, but also the positive steps that are being made. As Blum put it, “Once you see the mountain summit, you just have to keep plowing.”

Blum’s visit is just the beginning of an effort by OFS to bring together research from the Harvard School of Public Health and Medical School as well as research from scientists outside of Harvard in order “to better understand how we can incorporate human well-being into Harvard's efforts to be a sustainable community,” OFS Director Heather Henriksen says. 

After the event, I spoke with Henriksen to learn more about how she thinks we can use scientific research like Blum’s to positively impact health and well-being at Harvard.

Q. Why is this issue an important focus for you personally? Why for Harvard?

A. This issue is important for me personally for three reasons: 1) because human well-being is a core element to sustainability, 2) Students are increasingly asking us what can they do to make changes in their lives to improve health and well-being, and we are sharing the research and education provided by our faculty and their colleagues with our students and broader community. Harvard has world-class researchers and faculty members who study the impact of toxics on public health, and our Office's role is to weave research and teaching to on campus impact and education, 3) and personally because I have experienced impacts on my own health exacerbated by extremely elevated mercury levels after eating only fish based protein for 10 years.

Q. What are your thoughts on Blum’s meeting with stakeholders?

A. I think Arlene Blum did an excellent job of explaining the science related to the six classes of chemicals of concern to researchers and what that means in terms of our every day lives. She also effectively demonstrated how science can influence policy change with her personal story of helping rid toxic flame retardants from children's pajamas in the 1970's and within the last year helping change a California state law after scientists proved that flame retardants used in furniture add no real fire benefit yet expose us, especially children and pets, to dangerous flame retardants.  

Q. What are the big challenges a large institution faces when trying to adapt to research on flame-retardant dangers?

A. Harvard has committed to explore non-toxic alternatives when they exist for some of our most recent building projects, including House Renewal, but we must meet state and city regulations, some of which currently require these flame retardants. If the Commonwealth of Massachusetts offers the new California regulation TB 117-2013 as an option for meeting institutional fire safety regulations then Harvard will be able to further adapt our purchasing strategy. Our focus in the meantime is on educating our community about the prevalence of these toxic materials so they can make informed decisions as consumers here on campus, as well as at home in their personal lives. 

Our focus in the meantime is on educating our community about the prevalence of these toxic materials so they can make informed decisions as consumers here on campus, as well as at home in their personal lives.