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Environmental Factor, October 2012

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Flame retardant narrative shows why scientists need to communicate with policymakers

By Brant Hamel

Arlene Blum, Ph.D.

Despite the grim scenario she painted about exposure to flame retardant chemicals, Blum is optimistic about the future. “When scientists make a strong statement,” she said, “things begin to happen.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

David Armstrong, Ph.D., and Sheila Newton, Ph.D.

Blum’s talk drew a diverse crowd, including lead researcher David Armstrong, Ph.D., right, who studies the effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals on the nervous system, and Sheila Newton, Ph.D., director of the Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

According to chemist, public health advocate, and NIEHS guest lecturer Arlene Blum, Ph.D., North Americans live in a world awash with flame retardants, including the furniture they sit on, the baby and infant products they purchase, the air they breathe, and the material they use to insulate their houses. Flame retardants are even present in household dust on the floors where children and pets spend so much of their time.

Blum visited NIEHS Sept. 18 to discuss “Flame Retardants and Public Health: How Science Can Inform Policy.” Blum is the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute and a visiting professor of chemistry at University of California (UC), Berkeley, as well as a noted mountaineer and author. Blum’s talk was hosted by Linda Birnbaum Ph.D., director of NIEHS/NTP, who has also conducted extensive research into the negative health effects of flame retardants. 


Given the ubiquitous use of these chemicals, people hope that they serve to protect from the dangers of fire with no unnecessary health risks. However, as Blum told the audience at NIEHS, although scientists have convincingly shown that flame retardants are not safe or very effective, researchers still need to effectively communicate their findings to the policymakers who set standards for the use of these chemicals. “But the good news,” she told her audience, “is that this is a problem we can solve.”

Tris returns — a bad actor that keeps questionable company

Blum obtained her doctorate in biophysical chemistry at UC Berkeley and went on to conduct pioneering work with renowned biochemist Bruce Ames, Ph.D., on the health effects of brominated Tris flame retardants that during the mid-1970s constituted up to 10 percent of the weight of children’s pajamas. After showing that brominated Tris was extremely mutagenic and could be identified in a child’s blood following a single night of sleep, in 1977, the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned use of the product in children’s clothing. However, in what would be a common theme throughout Blum’s talk, industry replaced brominated Tris with another flame retardant, chlorinated Tris, which was also later removed from use in children’s clothing.

“The sad news is,” Blum said, “today chlorinated Tris is back. It’s in our furniture foam, it’s in baby products, at levels up to 10 percent the weight of foam.” The reason, she said, is the action of policymakers who adopted chemical industry-backed regulations, such as [flammability standard] TB 117 in California.

Scientists should be proactive

Despite more than 3,900 peer-reviewed scientific papers documenting the negative effects of flame retardants, many policymakers are still not aware of adverse health effects. Blum argued that scientists not only can, but should, inform policy and need to proactively seek out and engage policymakers.

To illustrate how scientists can make a difference, Blum gave the example of a scientist who tracked down and spoke with the main policymaker responsible for setting flammability standards for furniture in the UK. As a result of his interaction with the scientist, the policymaker is now considering how to change the regulations.

Blum concluded by saying that it’s critical to drive more research to better understand the health effects of flame retardants and more effectively communicate the results to policymakers so that harmful chemicals can be eliminated from future products. Recent articles published in the NY Times and Chicago Tribune have highlighted Blum’s quest and her efforts to do her part to impact public health policy.

(Brant Hamel, Ph.D., is an Intramural Research Training Award fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Signal Transduction.)

Arlene Blum, Ph.D., and Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

Birnbaum joined Blum at the podium and fielded several of the questions from the audience. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Mike DeVito, Ph.D.

During the question and answer segment of the presentation, NTP toxicologist Mike DeVito, Ph.D., expressed concern about the feasibility of submitting flame retardant chemicals to the gold standard of animal studies, which can take five years, he said. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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