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Molecules, Mountains and Making the World a Better Place

Molecules, Mountains and Making the World a Better Place  content piece image
Credit: Arlene Blum.
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Read time: 10 minutes

Dr. Arlene Blum asks if she can take our interview on her morning walk. In the pandemic induced Zoom era that we find ourselves living in, it sounds like the perfect antidote to screen fatigue – so I am more than happy to oblige. Over the telephone, I accompany her stroll through Tilden Park in the Berkeley Hills. Every now and then she pauses, taking a moment of silence before offering me a verbal picture of her surroundings. It feels like I am meeting Blum in a place that brings her joy and vibrance, in nature. In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn't have expected anything less from the woman that led the first American (and all women's) ascent of Annapurna – one of the world's most dangerous mountains – and crossed The Alps with her baby daughter Annalise in her backpack.

Blum is a world-renowned woman mountaineer. Her achievements and adventures in this role are numerous: in addition to leading the ascent of Annapurna, she co-led the first all-woman ascent of the highest mountain in North America, Denali. She documents and reflects on these experiences in her memoir, Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life, but they form only a part of her inspiring story.

Blum is also a renowned biophysical chemist, author, mother, activist and director of the Green Science Policy Institute. In the latter role, she is trailblazing a movement that aims to ensure toxic chemicals are removed from consumer products. It is a field of scientific research and policy that she first encountered in the 1970s, working as a postdoc student alongside Professor Bruce Ames at the University of California, Berkeley. Together, Blum and Ames published a report sharing their discovery that tris-(2,3-dibromopropyl) phosphate (tris-BP) – the main flame retardant used in children's pyjamas at the time – was being absorbed into children's skin and could cause DNA changes (mutations). Their call for action resulted in TRIS being banned from children's pyjamas just a few months later.

Determination and a lack of tolerance for being told what she can, and cannot do as a woman and a scientist, are running themes in the story of Blum's life and career. Her role as director of the Green Science Policy Institute came after a 26-year hiatus from science, a time in which she enjoyed many climbing expeditions and raised her daughter. While many could have been dissuaded from re-entering an arguably fierce environment such as science research and policy on toxic chemicals, Blum was surprised at the lack of progress in the field during her absence and wanted to contribute further. She has faced many physical and metaphorical mountains, overcoming sexism and prejudice to achieve her goals and make positive change for the world. In this interview, she recalls some of her greatest achievements, advises how we can work to reduce our exposure to toxic chemicals and how to communicate science to create change. 

Molly Campbell (MC): What inspired you to become a scientist?

Arlene Blum (AB):
My favorite uncle and my favorite high school teacher were both chemists. Uncle Sy worked at Argonne National Laboratory and through him, I had the opportunity to work there and publish a scientific paper in the Journal of Chemical Physics as a Reed college undergraduate. Early on, I began to love scientific research.

MC: How did the female scientists that you encountered in your early career influence you?

Jane Shell who taught my freshman chemistry class at Reed College was 23, had a PhD from MIT, and was so very enthusiastic about chemistry. She inspired all four women in my chemistry class to also get PhDs in chemistry.

Taking a break from studies, fellow-chemistry graduate students Kay Wilkerson and Kathy Martin traverse the outside of Lewis Hall at UC Berkeley with Blum. Credit: Arlene Blum.

MC: How did you feel knowing that your research on TRIS-treated children's garments had led to their ban?

We were very pleased, and we thought that the problem was solved. A few months later, I went to stores and purchased around 30 pairs of children's pyjamas to investigate whether Tris was really gone. I discovered that instead of brominated Tris, the pyjamas contained chlorinated Tris, which is similar in structure, function and unfortunately also toxicity. It is a mutagen and also a carcinogen. This was a very early example of the concept of regrettable substitution of one toxic chemical for another that has been phased out. When we published research on chlorinated Tris, it was also removed from children's pyjamas, which seemed to end the story. What we did not know at the time was that that same Tris was also used in other products.

"I love chemistry. I love the order of the periodic table, the way the elements are arranged, each with its own personality. There's lithium, sodium and potassium, excitable and reactive like grandma. Carbon, silicon, and lead are stable and well balanced, like Grandpa," Blum writes in her memoir, Breaking Trail.

MC: What parallels can be drawn between mountaineering and scientific research?

For me they are quite similar. You have a goal, be it the summit of a high Himalayan peak like Annapurna or stopping the use of harmful chemicals in everyday products. You assemble a team of climbers – or scientists and individuals from business and government – that share your vision. That vision could be climbing a mountain, or ensuring products are healthier, and you start plodding step by step towards your goal. There are always obstacles. On a mountain, it might be ice walls, avalanches, storms or exhaustion. In scientific research where you want to effect a positive change, there can be all kinds of setbacks. Change is never easy.

MC: You have faced sexism and prejudice throughout your time as a mountaineer. How have you overcome this, and have you ever faced similar discrimination in the world of science?

Much less so in science. I think the exception is back when I was a graduate student in chemistry at MIT. I was told that they had never given a woman a doctorate in physical chemistry, and that they never would. They did, of course, and they have given many ever since. This was a long time ago – back in the 60s – when science was not a super hospitable place for women. There have been conscious efforts to overcome this, but when I was a graduate student, it was really tough.

MC: What is your fondest memory thus far from mountaineering? And equally, your fondest moment in your career thus far?

There are so many. In mountaineering, my fondest memory is probably one of my earliest major summits, Denali, which is the highest mountain peak in North America. At that time, when people did not think women could climb high mountains like Denali – certainly not by themselves. I put together and co-led the first all-women's expedition to Denali. We reached the summit and saw endless chains of beautiful high snowy peaks. I remember feeling both happy and worried. Our leader fell ill, and we had a huge challenge to successfully get her back down the mountain. But, we did, and that really increased my sense of self-confidence; that story is how I start my memoir Breaking Trail. That might be my favorite memory from climbing.

For science, there have been many, but I do have one particular moment that stands out. We work together with manufacturers and the government to prevent harmful chemicals being in everyday products. This is usually a very long process.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) – also known as "forever" chemicals – are getting a lot of attention now, as we know that they do not break down and can cause harm to human health. For example, PFAS were found to contaminate drinking water of tens of millions in the U.S., and they are gathering increased attention across Europe.

Research suggested that the largest exposure source of PFAS for children was from carpets and rugs, because they were often sprayed or treated with PFAS to be water and stain repellent. Children of course crawl on the carpets, put their hands in their mouths and are exposed to PFAS. We invited the carpet industry to Berkeley for a one-day meeting to learn about the science of PFAS. Representatives from approximately 90% of the carpet industry attended, and it was an extraordinary day.

The industry had recently done a regrettable substitution. A PFAS known as perfluorooctanoic acid — or C8 – was phased out in 2015, 50 years after it was discovered to be harmful. The carpet industry replaced C8 with another PFAS known as C6 – six carbons surrounded by fluorine. To scientists it was pretty clear that C6 is similarly problematic. We had published the Madrid statement, signed by several hundred scientists, pointing out that the whole class of PFAS should not be used, because they all share the property of never breaking down and could cause health harm. By the end of that day, the carpet manufacturers stated that they would remove all PFAS from their carpets – and they did. I could not believe it, because I never expected this would be the outcome after just a one-day long meeting.

MC: After a hiatus, you chose to return to science. Why did you take the hiatus, and what inspired your return?

I took a break beginning in 1980, it was not a hospitable time for the environmental work that I was doing. I was also driven by a vision. I saw myself walking all the way across the Himalayan Mountain range. I had climbed in several areas of the Himalayas previously and always wanted to see the entire range all the way across Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, and India. I get motion sickness and couldn’t imagine driving up all those long twisty roads from the plains to visit all the mountain regions. I thought – maybe I could walk all the way across and avoid any driving? And so, I did. I walked more than 3000 km up and down across the great Himalaya Range.

At the time, I was working at UC Berkeley, and I had been taking leaves to go on climbing expeditions. When I said I wanted to take one year off to walk across the Himalayas, I was given a choice between staying in my scientific research position or going on the expedition. I chose the expedition. I figured that I could spend time enjoying great adventures and then return to my science and policy work when the political issues were over. During that period, I became a mother and I began to raise my daughter. I started to work on my memoir – Breaking Trail – and worked doing leadership training in Silicon Valley.

By the time my daughter was starting college in 2007, I had finished my memoir Breaking Trial. It took me two decades to write because it was a very personal exploration into my difficult childhood which ultimately led to my successes both in mountaineering and in science.

After I finished writing my memoir, I didn't know what I was going to do next. I hadn't worked in science for 26 years; I questioned whether I would be able to re-enter the laboratory and conduct scientific research after such a long time away. As it turned out, not much had changed in the field of toxic chemical policy.

I learned that the same Tris that we had helped remove from kid’s pyjamas in the 1970s was now being used in our nation’s furniture. This led to my founding The Green Science Policy Institute. I love to say that, since then, each day is an adventure quite like climbing Annapurna. There are challenges, successes and high drama, with many summits along the way – like the carpet industry story we have spoken about – and we have made a lot of positive changes working both with the government and manufactures alike. I feel really lucky to have taken the time off that I did and to be able to come back and have the opportunity to use my science again.

Carrying Annalise across the Alps. Credit: Arlene Blum. 

MC: What advice would you give to someone that wants to re-enter science after a hiatus?

My advice to everyone is to figure out in your heart what is really important to you. What do you really want to do? It's great if you can find other people to share your vision. In my life I tend to be persistent, I have been fortunate enough to achieve what I set out to do. Mountain climbers are often optimistic and determined.

MC: Can you talk to me about the journey of bringing good science to policy makers? What are the key challenges that you encounter?

One example is learning about and reducing harm from tens of thousands of chemicals that lack adequate information about their health impacts. To regulate just one chemical can take years of scientific research and advocacy. Only too often the replacement for a phased-out chemical is another that is very similar in structure, function and harm. We came up with the idea of thinking about chemicals in whole families or classes. For example, there are thousands of chemicals in the class of PFAS. When we first thought about classifying chemicals in this way, we figured that it would be useful for manufacturers.

We are really delighted because right now in the EU, the Nordic countries, Germany and the Netherlands, are asking that the whole class of PFAS be removed from use in consumer product unless the use is essential. The US state of Maine has also passed legislation to that effect. This is really surprising and gratifying that the idea of thinking of chemicals – particularly PFAS – in this way, as "classes" can be adopted by government to help with regulation. We first proposed this idea in 2013, so it has taken some time. But now many people are thinking about harmful chemicals in classes or families, which can stop so many regrettable substitutions and help move the industry towards healthier and safer products.

MC: A recent publication that you published was the first study to explore total fluorine or PFAS in cosmetics. Can you talk to me about your role in this research?

We are trying to identify where PFAS are found in consumer products. We work with a team of scientists that conduct analytical chemistry studies, and then we focus on the communication of their work. We have a very successful strategy. Our cosmetics paper has had over 60,000 downloads. We also published our communications strategy in Nature Communications, in order to help other scientists better communicate and increase the impact of their research. This involves setting an embargo date for when a scientific paper is published in order to maximise its press coverage and impact.

MC: How can we all take care of ourselves to try and avoid harmful chemicals?

I would suggest visiting sixclasses.org, where you can watch seven four-minute videos that describe – not all – but the majority of harmful chemicals and provide strategies for trying to avoid them. It is quite challenging because there is not a lot of transparency about what chemicals are in consumer products due to confidential business information. At The Green Science Policy Institute, we are working to help protect our health and environment from exposure to and harm from toxic chemicals.  Our goal is reduced use of toxics for healthier products, people, and planet.

About Arlene Blum
Arlene Blum PhD, biophysical chemist, author, and mountaineer is a Research Associate in Chemistry at UC Berkeley and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute.

About Green Science Policy Institute

The Green Science Policy Institute was founded in 2008 in Berkeley, California, by executive director Arlene Blum. The Institute’s scientific research and policy work has contributed to preventing the use of “Six Classes” of harmful chemicals in consumer products and building materials worldwide.