Scaling Mountains to Ban Toxic Chemicals in Pajamas

Published Sep 24, 2019

Scientist and adventurer Arlene Blum discusses her research on cancer-causing chemicals in kid’s pajamas in the 70s and chemical safety today.

In this episode
  • Arlene explores the dangerous past of children's pajamas
  • Colleen and Arlene discuss what happens when profit is valued more than science
  • Arlene talks about her connection to nature and public safety
Timing and cues
  • Opener (0:00-0:15)
  • Voting PSA (0:15-2:34)
  • Intro (2:34-3:27)
  • Interview part 1(3:27-17:04)
  • Break (17:04-18:06)
  • Interview part 2 (18:06-27:04)
  • Outro (27:04-28:00)
Related content
Full transcript

Colleen: Arlene, thank you so much for joining me on the "Got Science?" podcast.

Arlene: Delighted to be here.

Colleen: It's really an honor to meet you. I have to say hands down, you've had the most unusual background of the scientists I've interviewed thus far. You led the first all-woman ascent of Annapurna, which was the first successful American ascent. You and your research were instrumental in the regulation of cancer-causing chemicals used as flame retardants in kids' jammies in the '70s, and you co-founded the Green Science Policy Institute to bring scientific research into policy decisions to keep us safe from toxic chemicals.

I imagine you're busier than ever with the current administration. And while I really, really wanna start and talk about mountain climbing, I'm gonna start with science. So, tell me how pervasive are toxic chemicals in the life of an average American today?

Arlene: Way too pervasive and unfortunately responsible for a big chunk of our health problems, of the cancer and infertility and neurological problems in our population. But the good news is we can indeed reduce the harmful chemicals in our everyday products and all be healthier. So, I am an optimist and I think this provides a huge opportunity for scientists. I think scientists are so good at sharing their science and changing policy. And so, I see a lot of hope for reducing the problem.

Colleen: Give me an example of some of our everyday products that we encounter that have toxic chemicals in them.

Arlene: Well, we think about chemicals in classes, and my favorite class because it's the worst, I think, are the highly fluorinated chemicals or sometimes called PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances which is a big mouthful. PFAS is the abbreviation and they're stain and water repellents. And for example, you'll find them in carpets. That's the largest exposure for children. You'll find them... They're used to make Teflon and Gore-Tex. They can be coatings on furniture and other products to keep them waterproof. So, that's one example. And in many cases, you actually don't need these chemicals and we can reduce their use.

Colleen: As long as we don't mind a few stains on our carpet and sofa?

Arlene: Yeah. You can do other things to avoid stains without these chemicals.

Colleen: Right. So, you did groundbreaking research in the '70s on Tris, which is the flame retardant that used to be in children's sleepwear. Tell me about the research and how you came to focus on this chemical.

Arlene: Well, it's interesting because it ties into my mountain climbing. I was doing an expedition in India with America's leading young rock climber, Bruce Carson, who was a strong environmentalist. And he fell to his death. And I wanted to do something in his memory for the environment. And I was at that point a postdoc at Stanford studying how proteins fold and I thought that was not important. It turns out it's quite important.

But at the time, I went to see Bruce Ames who had a test for rapid screening of chemicals. And I said, "Is there something I can do to make the environment healthier in honor of my friend who died climbing?" And he said, "Well, I'm worried about kids' pajamas. Ten percent of the weight of almost all kids' pajamas in America is this flame retardant called brominated Tris. And I think it's a mutagen. It changes DNA. I think it's cancer-causing. And I think it gets into the kids."

So, we found a little girl whose mom had bought her pajamas in the U.K., had never worn Tris pajamas. And we put her in the Tris pajamas. We collected her urine. The first morning, there were toxic Tris breakdown products in the little girl's urine. And every day she wore the pajamas, the level went up. She stopped wearing the pajamas, the level went down. And this was shocking.

So, in America, chemicals that we put in our mouths, foods, drugs, pesticides are regulated. You could argue how well but they are regulated. And all the rest of the chemicals are only regulated by something called the Toxic Substances Control Act, which when it passed in the '70s grandfathered about 60,000 chemicals like Tris saying every chemical we're using now is fine. And those cannot be touched for regulation.

But anyway, back to the little girl. So, her pajamas, clearly this potentially toxic chemical was going from the pajamas into the child. And so, we ran an Ames test looking at whether it changed DNA. And it was one of the strongest mutagens we'd ever seen.

Colleen: So, a mutagen is something that changes DNA and what does that ultimately do?

Arlene: It can lead to cancer. So, Bruce Ames's theory was if something was a mutagen, it was likely to be a carcinogen. And that is often proven true, not always but in this case, it was a mutagen and a carcinogen. And we wrote a big lead article in "Science" magazine. And in those days, we shared it with all three of the TV networks and immediately, everyone in America knew and was outraged. And it's hard to believe, but three months later, Tris was banned from kids' pajamas. That next day, it was banned, three months from when we wrote our paper to when we had impact. And that is really our model at our institute is to write scientific papers that will have impact.

Colleen: I actually like the title of your paper because it's something that I well, the directness of it, I've never seen. The title was "Unequivocal" and stated, "Flame retardant additives as possible cancer hazards. The main flame retardant in children's pajamas is a mutagen and should not be used." And that's a strong title.

Arlene: Exactly. And that is really the basis of our institute right now, the Green Science Policy Institute. We and the scientists we work with try to make strong statements. You know, most scientific research ends with the same statement.

Colleen: More research.

Arlene: Exactly, more research is needed. It's a very safe statement. And we really wanna move scientists from more research is needed to saying this chemical is harmful and should not be used. And we found that when scientists do this, it is so powerful because today, it takes longer than three months. The chemical industry is a lot more feisty about defending their market and their territory. But nonetheless, we have actually, quite remarkably to us, almost always been successful in taking our scientific research to decision makers and affecting change. And that is what we do and that's a really great example.

Colleen: So, the flame retardant pajamas were available for about a year. Do you know if there were any children who wore them for a year that ended up with any significant illness?

Arlene: Well, you know, you can't really ask that question because people...humans move around a lot. We're exposed to many toxic substances.

Colleen: Too many variables, okay.

Arlene: So, I'm sure many children who wore the cancer-causing pajamas got cancer, but was it the pajamas or the person smoking next to them, you know, or the meat they ate with preservatives. So, it's very hard to answer that question. When the whole population is exposed to a really long time, like, cigarette smoke, asbestos, chemicals, substances like that, you can draw that equation. But fortunately, children were not exposed for that long to brominated Tris.

Colleen: So, once they couldn't use Tris, they develop chlorinated Tris, which is another form. And you did more research on that and that too was banned.

Arlene: Yeah, exactly. So, a big problem around trying to reduce harm from chemicals, is if there's a chemical that's really commonly used in an industrial process and after what's usually years and years of scientific research and advocacy and regulation, it's finally banned or phased out. It's quite difficult and expensive to change industrial processes. And so, the chemical industry will usually come up with a chemical that's almost identical in structure, function, and unfortunately harm. And that's called a regrettable substitute.

And so, when brominated Tris was banned, the substitute was chlorinated Tris, which similarly changed DNA and similarly was found to be cancer-causing, and indeed was phased out of use in pajamas back in, I think, 1977. But of course, the really interesting thing about chlorinated Tris, which contributed to what I think is kind of a remarkable story of mine is they continued to use it in furniture. And I didn't know that. I thought, "Oh, brominated Tris is gone, chlorinated Tris is gone. I'm gonna go back to mountain climbing. It's all fine."

And then about 25 years later, I said, "Well, my daughter is going to college. I finished my memoir. Maybe I can go back to science. But I haven't done science for 25 years. And I'm sure I'm out of date." And I learned that the same chlorinated Tris that we had gotten out of kids' pajamas was back in just about everybody's furniture. So, if you bought a couch between about 2005 and about 2012, the foam in your coach cushion is about 5% by weight the same chlorinated Tris.

So, if you had 40 pounds of foam in your coach, you would have 2 pounds of chlorinated Tris in your house. And it's known now to be cancer-causing. And so, it was kind of amazing because I decided to go back to science after that long break thinking maybe I'd be lucky if I could get a job washing test tubes in somebody's lab because after so many years, I didn't know anything. Yeah, it was actually 26 years, 1980 to 2006. And I learned that Tris was back and I wrote an op-ed in "The New York Times." And it just started an incredible torrent of events.

Colleen: So, how is it that it got to make a comeback?

Arlene: It was used the whole time. All that was phased out was in pajamas. But it wasn't phased out of all the other uses. And it's still used today in transportation foam. It has been phased out from all products, chlorinated Tris. But probably the foam in your car, and your airplane, and your boat, it may well still have chlorinated Tris.

Colleen: There's no getting away from it, it sounds like.

Arlene: Well, there is. It's out of product, which is really good. Basically, at that point when I went back to science, all the furniture in America, pretty much the foam was 5% by weight. A toxic flame retardant that actually did not help prevent fires which is really crazy. And also, all these children's products, high chairs, strollers, nursing pillows, you know, nursing pillow covered in organic cotton would have inside it a cancer-causing chemical that came out. And that was all the baby products and furniture in 2006.

Colleen: But something you just said now is striking me. You said it's not even really flame retardant?

Arlene: It doesn't provide a fire safety benefit.

Colleen: So, we know that but it's still made and used.

Arlene: It's not there anymore. It's been solved. It's been solved.

Colleen: Okay.

Arlene: So, if you go buy a couch today, there'll be a label on it that will check whether or not it has flame retardants. And it will say that it doesn't almost for sure. And it's not in children's products anymore.

Colleen: Okay. That's good news.

Arlene: And that's all based on science.

Colleen: That is really good news based on science.


Colleen: Where was the chemical industry in all of this?

Arlene: Well, as the story goes, when I learned Tris was back, I thought, "Oh, I'm gonna have a meeting with the chemical industry and everybody and explain how bad Tris is and they'll stop using it." But that didn't happen. They didn't even wanna come to my meeting. For flame retardants, it’s all about your flammability standard. And the only state in the country that can make flammability standards is California because back when we had our big fire in... 1908, I believe, we got our flammability bureau. And we're the only state that can do that.

And so, we make standards and they're followed across all of the U.S. and Canada because manufacturers wanna make the same product. So, there's a California standard, and I will say this, it's a little complicated but it said that the foam inside the couch or a children's product has to resist a very small flame for 12 seconds. And to do that, you have to make the foam 5% to 10% by weight a toxic flame retardant. But if you do a thought experiment and you'd wrap a candle on your couch, what burns first?

Colleen: The fabric?

Arlene: The fabric. And do you have a small flame or a large flame?

Colleen: I would imagine it would be a fairly large flame with the entire surface of the fabric.

Arlene: Right. So, then the flame retardant only delays the burning maybe two seconds. And when you have flame retardants, the fire gives out way more soot, smoke, and toxic gasses. And you know what kills people in fires?

Colleen: What they're breathing?

Arlene: The toxic gasses and smoke keeps them from escaping. So, for making your cushion, having pounds of toxic flame retardants in your couch, in your house, if there were a fire you'd get a couple seconds delay and a much smokier and more toxic fire. And that's what kills people. So many studies showing no fire safety benefit. And we discovered that and we came up with a new strategy where you could stop the fire in the fabric without flame retardants. And we had legislation in California and the chemical industry spent a documented $23 million over 4 years preventing all this legislation from passing.

So, the story of what happened is we got a new governor and his senior advisor lived not far from me and had a dog and liked to go hiking. And so, in those days, my friends would say, "Well, we'll go hiking with you but you have to promise not to talk about flame retardants the whole time." Because I was a little obsessed, like, you know.

So, I started hiking with the governor's senior advisor. And so, he got educated. He educated the governor. The governor said maybe he could do something about it but he really couldn't because the chemical industry would've spent a fortune, you know, advertising he was burning down the state. And it wasn't very pretty the way they spent their $23 million. And then the "Chicago Tribune," I kept inviting the press to these crazy hearings where the chemical industry would just lie. And then people would, well, you know, they would win and we'd get defeated.

So, anyway, I invited them to a...Pulitzer Prize winning reporters from the "Chicago Tribune" to a very crazy hearing. And they ended up researching and writing a series of front page exposés. And I think the subtitle of one...oh, I can't do it by heart, but it basically said that these flame retardants had been put in all our furniture and they didn't work as promised. And that changed everything. And then the governor, like, two weeks after that came out, he issued a great press release saying we didn't need toxic flame retardants in our furniture. And so now, everybody can buy couches and children's products without these toxic chemicals and we'll all be healthier. So, it's a very positive story. And again, it was based on scientific research.

Colleen: So I want to go back to the U.S. toxic substances control act, also known as TSCA (“tosca”). I think so many people assume that if a product is on the market, that our government has determined that it's safe and that we can use it and not become ill or get cancer or die. How is chemical safety determined? Why were all those chemicals before 1976, were they tested? They weren't deemed safe?

Arlene: They were all grandfathered.

Colleen: They were just grandfathered and they never had extensive testing on them to begin with.

Arlene: And they can't regulate them. Asbestos is one of the grandfathered chemicals. The EPA spent several years and could not regulate asbestos. Now you're gonna say, "Wait, wait, you can't use asbestos. It's against the law. There are lawsuits." And that's it, there are lawsuits. So, if you're an asbestos worker and you get mesothelioma, a fatal form of cancer that's only caused by asbestos, you will sue and you will win but you will die. And that's how we regulate.

Colleen: It's not regulated but it's only controlled in any way by the lawsuits that are brought. So, someone, a company, whoever might want to use asbestos might decide not to because there have been so many lawsuits.

Arlene: Exactly.

Colleen: That's the deterrent, the lawsuits.

Arlene: And you do not wanna regulate that way.

Colleen: How do we change that?

Arlene: Well, there was a huge struggle and there is a reformed TSCA that's supposed to be better. But unfortunately, in the current political climate, it's not happening. And even the new TSCA is just doing a handful of chemicals at a time, a very small number. And there are, you know, tens of thousands of industrial chemicals out there. And in fact that's why, that’s why we came up with this idea of really looking at chemicals in classes or families.

Colleen: Well, tell me first, there are six classes of chemicals that are the worst.

Arlene: Well, there are many classes but we picked out six that are commonly used in everyday products where there is so much science that you don't have to kill any more rats you know, we know that if a chemical is in this class, it's a chemical of concern. That doesn't necessarily mean you should never use it. But you should only use it if it's really necessary. You know, so if you say to a mom, "You can have a lovely stain repellent carpet but that stain repellent is cancer-causing and it's gonna be in your child's body for many years to come and on the planet forever," that mom might decide that she doesn't really needthat degree of stain repellency, and there are alternatives.

So, we came up with the class concept. And indeed, for that class, the stain repellent class, there's 4,000 members. There were two that were commonly used. It took literally 50 years from when it was first discovered they were toxic to when they were phased out, 1965 to 2015. And then they were replaced with chemicals that were virtually identical. The toxic ones are called C8, 8 carbons surrounded by fluorine. And so, the replacement is C6, 6 carbons surrounded by fluorine. And these chemicals are contaminating the drinking water of many millions of Americans. And there's huge concern. There's a lot of activity on the hill. A lot of things are passing. They're bipartisan. They're happening. And people are talking about regulating the whole class. And you see that in language today on the hill, which is really gratifying because when you have 4,000 of them and it takes 50 years to regulate 2, you need to not just go to the next regrettable substitute.

And so, we hear... So, 2013 was our first retreat where we really formalized the class concept. And we did six classes because that's a chunk people can understand. And we think that if those six classes were only used where they're really necessary, that would cut the health problems in our country to a large extent. And we're optimistic. With all of the them, things are happening, and people are talking about classes. So, we see huge progress. The voice of science is so powerful. And, you know, when we started studying PFAS in 2013, the first thing we did was start convening scientists from all over the world. And we've had a call every month since 2013. There are now 100 scientists who are in our network. And they share what's happening in science and in policy all over the world. And they help each other. And all over the world, we're moving forward on regulating the class and affecting change. A lot is happening in Europe. Particularly Scandinavia, of course, but Australia has, you know...the UK. So, it's very optimistic.

Colleen: Well, Arlene, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast.

Arlene: A pleasure.

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  • Voting PSA: Diana Vasquez
  • Editing: Omari Spears
  • Music: Brian Middleton
  • Research and writing: Jiayu Liang and Pamela Worth
  • Executive producer: Rich Hayes
  • Host: Colleen MacDonald

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