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Woman Against The Element

Arlene Blum has spent decades persuading the world to rely less on brominated flame retardants.

Tiffany Kary

Among the technical and sometimes arcane-seeming debates at this year’s meeting of the International Code Council was one that grew surprisingly emotional: whether building codes should allow the use of polystyrene insulation not treated with flame retardant in foundations, below a 3.5inch concrete slab. At stake was a larger argument about whether some volatile elements, including bromine, are safer for human health if they’re part of longer chains of molecules. On one side were some of the chemical industry’s most powerful companies. On the other was 74-year-old chemist and activist Arlene Blum.

Blum is an accomplished mountaineer—she led the first all-women expedition to scale the Himalayan massif Annapurna in 1978—and sometimes describes her professional trials in those terms. In 1977 she identified a brominated flame retardant called Tris as a likely carcinogen, leading to a ban on Tris-treated kids’ pajamas. That was a relatively easy climb, at least compared with persuading international standards setters in 2008 not to impose regulations that would have put hundreds of millions of pounds of flame retardants in the casings of TVs, printers, and other household electronics. That, Blum, says, “was harder than Annapurna.”

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September 02, 2019

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