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Arlene Blum: “Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life” | Talks at Google


[MUSIC] ALAN EUSTACE: So hello everyone,
I’m Alan Eustace, and I have the great pleasure
of introducing Arlene Blum, who will talk about her new
book “Breaking Trail.” You know, it’s a big pleasure
for me. I was telling her the highest
peak I’ve ever climbed is 14,500 feet or something like
that, but I read her book very early on, and it was very
inspirational on Annapurna, and I like several
things about it. Later, I found out that
Annapurna is the hardest and most difficult of all the 8,000
meter peaks, but the other thing was inspirational
was the fact that it was an all women’s expedition. And I felt like it really
showed both the planning ability, the creative genius,
the athletic ability, the sense of adventure that I
thought was kind of– there weren’t married many role
models in mountaineering for women, so I was really,
really happy to see it. And also, I thought the book
gave a prospective. Women writing books, I think,
bring a different passion. It’s less conquering, and it’s
more communing with nature in ways that I think are really
good, and it showed both the tragedy and the triumph that’s
involved in mountaineering. Later, when we talked earlier, I
found out that she obviously likes challenges that are
practically impossible, because she also spends time, as
you’ll hear today, working on legislation to protect people
from the environment, and you’ll hear a lot
about that today. And I think I her definition
was, in many ways it’s even more challenging, because it’s
a fight against the chemical industry, and billions of
dollars, and trying to find ways to actually protect people,
costs them less money, and make them more
safe overall. So with that, I’d like
to introduce Arlene. Thank you very much
for coming. Oh, let me say one other
thing on this book. I looked on Amazon. This book has 41 reviews. Of those 41 reviews, 37 are five
stars, the maximum, and three are four stars. It is probably the highest rated
book I have ever seen, and the reviews are amazing. And I already bought mine, I
just want to let you know. This is the first author that
I’ve ever paid money for their book, so I want you
to know that. ARLENE BLUM: And if you
ever need a job as my marketing manager. And actually, the mountain that
he talked about, even though it’s 14,000 feet, North
Palisade is one of the more challenging and beautiful
mountains I’ve ever climbed, so being 14,000 feet can still
be quite an accomplishment, so I recommend North Palisade
right, good mountain. So as we said today, I’m going
to talk about mountains and molecules, and you
might end up– we’ll see at the end. How many people here came to
learn about mountains? How many came to learn
about molecules? Oh, OK, a lot of molecules
people here, that’s good. So my career of both mountains
and molecules began in my freshman chemistry lab
at Reed College, and this is in the ’60s. My professor was a 23 year old
woman with a PhD In chemistry from MIT, and you can imagine
that was pretty unusual in the ’60s. She thought chemistry was the
coolest subject on the planet, and there were four girls in my
freshman chemistry class, and we all got PhD’s in
chemistry, which says something about the importance
of role models. My lab partner was a very
handsome young man from Portland, Oregon, and we studied
chemistry till late one starry night, and
he said, do you want to climb Mount Hood. Well, I was from Chicago. I’d never done anything physical
in my life, had been raised by an overprotective
family where I wasn’t even allowed to ride horses,
but he was very handsome, so I said sure. And so we drove up to Timberline
Lodge, he put a big pack on my back, and
we started up, and I started gasping. He said he didn’t think I was
going to make it out of the parking lot, because I was
gasping so loudly, but he was very handsome, so
I persevered. And when the sun rose, I was in
the most beautiful place I had ever been, high above the
clouds, and I fell in love with him, and with mountain
climbing, and with chemistry, and kept doing mountain climbing
and chemistry until I was a grad student
at UC Berkeley. And I just passed my qualifying
exams, and wanted to go on an adventure, and one
of my lab partners said, there’s an expedition to Denali
and I’m going to go. Do you want to go? And I said, great, when
I pass my qualifying exams I’ll go to Denali. And I wrote for the information
and it said women can go on a Denali trip at a
reduced price, as far as base camp, to help with
the cooking. So I called the guy who is
leading the trip and I said, I want to go to Deanli, but
I want to climb it. And he said, women aren’t
physically strong enough or emotionally stable enough to
climb mountains like Denali. And I said, I was climbing with
my friends from Reed in Peru, and we climbed higher
than Denali in the Andes. And he said, were you
the only woman. And I said, yeah. And he said, did you really do
your share of the leading. And I said, no, I probably
didn’t, but I thought I participated. And he said, you are probably
just carried up the mountain. So I realized as long as I
climbed with all guys, and in those days most of the climbers
were guys, people, and maybe even me, would
question had I done my share. So I thought, I wonder if we
can organize an all women’s team to Deanli, and that was
a very revolutionary idea back in 1970. So we organized the Denali
Damsels, and here we are on the mountain. And nowadays, people carry their
loads on the low slopes on sleds where they pull them,
but we hadn’t thought of that back then, and to climb Denali
you need about 200 pounds of food and gear, 30
days of food. And so the reason people thought
women couldn’t do it is because they thought
women couldn’t carry– you saw that big pack
we’re carrying– but we could, and we headed
up the mountain. It was a beautiful place. We got up to our high camp. I was the deputy leader. I’d organize the trip. I was 25 at the time, but the
leader was a 50 year old woman who was one of Alaska’s
leading climbers. But most of the peaks in Alaska
aren’t very high, and it turned out she had an
altitude problem, so she was really strong up to about 14,000
feet, but she didn’t do very well above 14, and
Denali is 20,000. So we’re at the high camp
here at 17,000 feet. It’s summit morning, she has a
headache, she hadn’t actually been carrying her load. She’d been feeling really badly,
and I said, Grace, maybe you shouldn’t try for
the summit when you have a migraine and you
feel terrible. But she was really determined,
and so we headed up. She was going slowly, but
it was a gorgeous day. We reached the summit– she’s
the person slumped down to the right of the flag. She wasn’t eating, drinking. We weren’t so happy. We were very happy, because we
hadn’t even know if women could climb Denali. Every step of the way it was
like, can we actually do this, and we did it. We were on the top, but we
saw thick clouds coming. We heard a big Arctic storm
was forecast, and she was really ill, and so we sort of
supported her down a little way below the summit, she
collapsed unconscious. And I was now the expedition
leader at age 25, with six people, an Arctic storm coming
in, and a unconscious person near the summit of Denali. So we put her in a sleeping
bag with a pack frame as a structure. We wrapped a climbing
rope around. We kind of made a stretcher, and
we hauled and lowered her down the mountain. And I think you can see the
place where the summit is, the place where grace collapsed, and
then we hauled and lowered her down that slope to where
it says bivvy site. I can’t quite see in the back. And then another woman and I
stayed up with her on the bivvy site watching the clouds
massing, this big storm coming in. It was getting dark, and I’ll
always remember that moment, thinking if the storm comes,
what do we do. Do we stay here? Do we leave her? It was a horrible moment, and
then fortunately she got a little bit better, and we were
able to get her down the mountain before the storm really
hit, and we’re down now at 14,000 feet. You can see the amount of snow
on our snow shoes, and we were going out every three hours to
shovel the snow off the tent, but I was a different person. That happening gave me so
much more self esteem. If you read “Breaking Trail”
you’ll see I had a really tough childhood where I was
always said pretty negative messages, and really never felt
very good about myself, and I do remember a long time
ago though, sitting in that tent thinking, I’m not
such a bad person. I got Grace down alive. We climbed Denali. I’m actually OK. And it really gave me a lot of
confidence to have had such a challenge, and to be
able to have gotten her down the mountain. So by the time we flew out, I
felt like I’d gone from being a 25 year old girl from Chicago
who climbed some mountains, to a woman who could
lead expeditions, and dream up impossible things. So my next big adventure
happened when I was back at grad school, hard at work
not writing my thesis. Has anybody engaged in
such an activity? So I went to the movies, North
Side Theater if any of you know it, Berkeley, and “The
Endless Summer” was playing. It was the Beach Boys going
around the world with big surf boards looking for the perfect
wave, and I watched them and I thought, when I got my PhD I
want to go around the world and find the perfect mountain. So I told my adviser, who
thought this would not be good for my career as a chemist,
and I said, don’t worry. I was studying a molecule
called Transfer RNA. I said, I’ll make a flag that
says tRNA, and I’ll fly it on all the summits. I’ll think about my research. So we planed to climb
in Europe for a summer, in Africa. By going up and down across
the equator, we could have five climbing seasons in 15
months, so it was Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, New
Zealand, back to being a chemist for the rest of my
life, one adventure. So I’ll go quickly. We missed Europe, because my
thesis was late, but we started in Ethiopia where we
climbed, in the background, the highest peak Ras Dashen,
which is 15,000 feet. And then we went to these
mountains, the Rwenzori. Would you believe you’re
looking at Uganda and the Congo? They’re on the equator on the
Congo-Uganda border, and they’re the source
of the Nile. Ptolemy said a long time ago,
the Nile came from snowy mountains on the equator. And the weather is so bad there
that nobody hardly knew they existed, and we actually
climbed about all the peaks in the Rwenzori. Here I am on the summit at
17,000 feet on the equator, and you see my flag says tRNA. I was thinking about
my research. This is Mount Kenya, which is
about a five eight rock climb, about 18,000 feet. Kilimanjaro– I have now a unique slide that
I’ve only shown a few audiences, but I actually a
couple months ago gave the big lecture for the American Alpine
Club dinner in New York, and at the lecture was a
guy I had met on Kilimanjaro that I hadn’t seen since
Kilimanjaro. This was 1972, and at that
time we said no money. We were poor students doing this
on no money, carrying our own packs up Kilimanjaro. He was part of a guided party,
and the day we climbed Kilimanjaro it was snowing, and
the guided parties went to the crater rim and turned back,
but we didn’t have a guide so we walked around the
crater rim to the real summit. Anybody climbed Kilimanjaro
here? Yeah, so right there’s a couple
miles, I think, you walk up high where you hit the
crater to the high point. But anyway, when we were going
by, I don’t know how this happened, but I said something
like, I think I’m going to sun bathe in my bikini
on this summit. And he said, I’ll give you
$10 for a picture. Well that was a lot of money
for us in those days, so I hadn’t seen this guy since 1972,
but there he was at the Alpine Club dinner, and I was
able to squirrel through all my slides quickly and add
my summit picture from Kilimanjaro. It was fast. It was cold. It was a very fast picture. So he gave me the $10. It’s not it’s worth as
much as it was 1972. So we carried on to Mount
Damavand, which is the highest peak in Iran, and then
we went to Kashmir, so we were so lucky. We went to all these places you
can’t go to now, and we joined up with the local
Kashmiri Mountaineering and Hiking Club, who knew about
all these mountains that they’d tried to climb but never
could, because they didn’t have the techniques
and the gear. And mostly the idea of getting
up at 3:00 in the morning when the– they would get up at 8:00 and
make chapatis, and not get up the mountain. And we would get up at 3:00
and cook over our little primus, and be up at the summit
when the sun rose. Anyway, so they told us about
all these mountains that had never been climbed, and then
we climbed them all. So here I was at age
26 doing first ascents in the Himalayas. It was a long way from Chicago,
and I wasn’t that good a technical climber, but
I was really determined. So when there was really deep
snow and everybody said, the snow is too deep, let’s just
not bother, I would sort of break trail through the deep
snow to the face of the ice cliff where the guys who
were the good ice climbers would take over. So my specialty was indeed
breaking trail, plodding through snow, and as you’ll
hear, doing science policy is just like breaking trail. Does anyone do anything in your
work where you feel like you’re plodding through
deep snow? These were some peaks in Kashmir
we did not climb that were really hard, but we were
so lucky to be at all these places that we were practically
the first Westerners. Then we went to Afghanistan
and did an expedition, and again, I felt so privileged to
have this wonderful time in Afghanistan at a very happy
time for that country. There was a king, it was
modernizing, and in fact, after September 11, I showed
this slide show about Afghanistan, which led to
founding the Society for Preservation of Afghan
Archaeology. From having climbed there, have
been involved with things around Afghanistan. So here I am at 20,000 feet in
Afghanistan, thinking about my tRNA research, right. But this was a very
memorable day. At this point it was 1973. All the world’s highest
mountains of 8,000 meters or higher had been climbed by men,
but no woman had ever climbed to 8,000 meters, and
we were climbing a mountain that was 7,500, and there was
a Polish expedition there. We’re heading up to the summit,
and we met coming down Wanda Rutkiewicz, who went on to
become the world’s leading moment mountaineer. She was the first woman to climb
K2, the third woman to climb Everest. But meanwhile, we were on Noshaq
and she had just come down from climbing, it’s like
24, five, 7,500 meters, and I was heading up, and she gave
me a big hug, and said, we will climb Annapurna together,
all women. And so that moment in
Afghanistan was where the idea came to climb Annapurna. Meanwhile, I did lots of other
expeditions, I got my PhD, I post doc’ed at Stanford in
bio-chem, and alternated climbing expeditions,
research. I was studying intermediate in
protein folding, and I went on an expedition in India
that changed my life. And it was an easy mountain
called Trisul, but it was, again, high, over
7,000 meters. It had been climbed back in
1890, very easy, and on it was Bruce Carson, who was at that
time America’s leading young rock climber. He had pioneered climbing the
hardest faces in Yosemite without pitons. People used to drive pitons
into the rock, now Bruce pioneered putting chalk stones
in that don’t scar the rock, and he had led people like
Yvon Chouinard and Royal Robbins, if you know those
names, up the first grade sixes ever done in the valley
without pitons. And so we were on this
easy mountain. I’m a slow walker. He was ahead with some
of his friends. I got to the summit and
his friend said, we think Bruce is lost. I don’t think I have
a pointer. I don’t have a pointer do i? We’re going to imagine. So you see those footprints
on the left? Do you know what a cornice is? A cornice is where the wind
blows, like you have a rocky place, and the wind blows, so
you can have snow over air. It’s like a big wave of snow,
and so Bruce got to the top with his friends. He was very careful climber,
always roped, but he unroped. He thought that point that you
see there was a higher summit, and where his footprints are
on the left, he went out on the point, but he was on a
cornice and fell to his death. And you can see, this is from
the other side, that big cornice on the top, and we had
no idea that there was a– India was very secretive in
those days about maps. We had no real map. We didn’t know there was a
face, and so Bruce was 23 having done all this, and
fell to his death. And I was really depressed, and
I came back to Stanford, and I didn’t really want to
study protein folding. I wanted to do something
for the world, for the environment, because Bruce
had been an early environmentalists, like he did
the first big cleanups in Yosemite Valley, getting
rid of all the trash. He was very much, and so a guy
who had been on my PhD orals committee called Bruce Ames– anybody here ever heard
of Bruce Ames? If you’re in biology, but he had
something called the Ames test, where you could take
a chemical, put it on a bacterial plate, if it changed
the bacteria it was likely to cause cancer. It was a cancer screening
tool that was kind of revolutionary, and so I went to
see him and I said, I don’t want to do protein
folding anymore. It’s not important. It turns out protein folding
is really important, how proteins fold, for
lots of things. But I want to do something
environmental, and he said, you know, I’m kind of worry
about this flame retardant in kid’s pajamas. It looks like it’s a carcinogen
to me, and it’s actually 10% of the weight of
all the kid’s pajamas in the country, and I think it
gets inside the kids. Do want to study that? He said it’s so practical,
even the undergraduates won’t– you know scientists like
to do theoretical things, nothing too practical. He said, nobody will
look at it. Would you look at it? I was sufficiently depressed. I said sure. So I found a child who– and the chemical is called
brominated tris. All the pajamas pretty much
kids in America were wearing were 10%. I found a mom who’d bought her
children’s pajamas in England, so they’d never worn
the tris pajamas. So we put a child in
the tris pajamas, collected their urine. The next morning there were tris
breakdown products in the child’s urine, which meant the
tris was going from the pajamas into the child. And then we ran a screen to see
if it was a mutagen, did it change DNA, and it was
one of the strongest mutagens we’d ever seen. And I thought, oh my goodness,
we have to write a paper. We have to alert the
parents of America. This is a disaster. And then I got invited
to this mountain. Do you know what mountain
this is? Anybody know? Big mountain. Everest, Mount Everest, and at
that point, Everest had been climbed once by Americans. 1963, and this is the 50th
anniversary of the first American ascent of Everest. And if anyone’s interested, I’m
on the honorary committee for the 50th anniversary party,
which is in Richmond, California in the
end of February. If anybody wants to go,
see me afterwards. I’ll give you an invitation. So there’s a 50th anniversary
party for Everest. So Everest was climbed
by Americans in ’63. This was ’76, the bicentennial
year, and no American woman had ever eve tried Everest,
and so I had this terrible choice. Did I write the paper about the
cancer causing pajamas, or did I climb Mount Everest. So how many of you would
climb Mount Everest? How many of you would write
the paper about the cancer causing pajamas? So I did both. So here is our team, and we
climbed in beautiful places like the Khumbu Icefall, rigged
ladders, but every night I would get to
camp and I would write more of my paper. And here we are in the great
Khum, and when I reached my high point, now my flag
says the mutants. That petri dish has no tris,
the one with only two colonies, and you can’t see
blowing in the wind the one with lots of tris where there
are lots of mutations. But I’d finished my paper. I sent it by mail runner back to
Berkeley, and we did reach the summit of Everest on October
15, 1976 for the bicentennial, and then the next
January our paper was published in “Science.” And I always include the title
of this paper in my talks, because it really says what our
Institute is now doing. So the subtitle, which I can’t
read back there, “The main flame retardant in children’s
pajamas is a mutagen and should not be used.” For those
of you read scientific papers, is that an unusual title? What do all scientific papers
recommend as the next steps at the end? More research, and that’s
pretty much all they recommend, and we went, oh my
god, every kid in the country is wearing toxic pajamas, and so
we really recommended that. We did media, and three months
after the paper came out, tris was banned from kid’s pajamas. So some of you might have
been those kids. It was only used for a couple
years, ’74 and ’75, or maybe those were your parents who
didn’t wear the tris pajamas for that long. And it made me realize that
it’s really important for scientists to, at some point,
go from saying more research is needed, to taking a stand and
saying there is a problem here, and something needs to
be done about it, and so we now have the Green Science
Policy Institute. Our mission is to bring the best
science to change policy in the public interest. So brominated tris was banned,
and when something is banned, industry likes to keep things
as similar as possible. So what do you think
the replacement for brominated tris was? Chlorinated tris, and so we
ran mutagenicity tests. It also changed DNA. It was also banned from kid’s
pajamas, but chlorinated tris turns out to be the number one
chemical in furniture, and other baby products today. So anyone here have
a couch from Ikea? What year did you buy it? AUDIENCE: Just this year. ARLENE BLUM: Oh, this year. Well, it’s maybe not too bad. What about yours? AUDIENCE: Who knows. ARLENE BLUM: OK, so if you
bought your couch between 2005 and 2011, it contains
chlorinated tris, all the Ikea couches, and pretty much
all the couches. But basically anyone in
California who has a couch has tris or a related chemical in
it, so it was banned from baby pajamas, but not
from furniture. But we didn’t know
that back then. We though, yay, we’ve
solved the problem. And I thought, it’s time to give
women a chance to climb an 8,000 meter peak. I’d met Wanda in Afghanistan. She said, let’s climb
Annapurna. It seemed like a
good mountain. It was the first 8,000 meter
peak ever climbed. On my way back from Everest
I got a permit for it. We put together a team who
ranged in age from 20 to 50. Actually, there is Dan. Irene is not here, is she? Dan’s wife Irene was the first
woman to climb Annapurna. Sorry if I’m embarrassing
you, Dan. Anyway, so there’s Irene and
the rest of our team. Thank you for coming again. I’m sure Dan has seen– the later part’s different,
you’ll see. So we’re all still friends. We have reunions. We had to raise $80,000 to fund
our expedition, and We raised it selling these
t-shirts, and if anyone wants it, you just Google Annapurna
t-shirts, and you can get them from our website. So I’ll quickly go through– see how we’re doing on time– some of the beautiful pictures
on Annapurna. It was one of the most gorgeous
places I’ve ever been, but one of the
most dangerous. We didn’t know it then, but
Annapurna has the highest fatality rate of any of
the 8,000 meter peaks. It’s really high precipitation,
so there are these huge avalanches, really
amazing steep slopes. It’s considered the most
difficult and the most dangerous of the 8,000
meter peaks. Not the best choice, but we
persevered, broke trail, and reached the summit. There’s Irene in the center,
and two Sherpa teammates. Two of the women on
our team, two Sherpas reached the summit. We unfurled a Nepali flag,
American flag, women’s place is on top flag, all
held together by a save the whales pin. Headed down there was a second
summit attempt, and the two women on that fell to their
deaths, so climbing mountains like this can be very,
very dangerous. So after Annapurna– there’s Irene in front
of Annapurna– I wanted to do an expedition
to a safe, quote, “easier” mountain, and we did a hard
first ascent in India with an Indian American women’s team. We’re congratulated
by Indira Gandhi. I said I’d always dreamed of
walking the whole length of the Himalayan Mountain range. It’s a thing, once you get a
dream or a vision in your mind, you kind of have
to make it happen. So I thought, walk across the
Himalayas, but the borders were closed to Westerners, but
Mrs. Gandhi said she thought she could help, and we got
permission, and we started in Bhutan and walked all the way
across Bhutan, India, Nepal. I turn out to not have a very
good sense of direction, but Hugh Swift, who I was walking
with, had just finished writing a guidebook, so he knew
how to find the way, and I was pretty good
at the politics. And so we crossed 19,000 foot
passes, and drop down, down, down terraced valleys. Everywhere we came it seemed
like a very auspicious day. This was the annual archery
festival in Bhutan. Most places, almost the whole
time we were in places, there had never been a Westerner
before, so we were greeted like visitors from the gods
by the local people. The one day we were in
[INAUDIBLE], the Dalai Lama was there giving a
talk in English. Yeah, it was like auspicious
day all the way. Every day was an
auspicious day. We entered Nepal on the Day of
the Dog when dogs were given little marigold wreaths,
and little tikas and special treats. We funded out trip by having
trekking groups that met us, and brought us supplies, and
walked with us for a few days. And I still lead treks, one or
two a year, and indeed we have sign up sheets. This is a cue to pass
out sign up sheets. If anybody wants to be on our
mailing list, we’ll pass out sign up sheets, and basically
you’ll hear for me if we have trips. I think I’m doing a trip– now there’s a scientific meeting
in Switzerland, so then I’m going to do a trip
from Charmonix to near the Matterhorn, along the Haute
Route in August. So I do one or two
trips a year. We’re really lucky last year. We did a great trek in Burma
right when it opened, so starting from this– and then you actually get to
hear a lot about flame retardants if you sign the list,
so if you don’t want to hear about flame retardants,
write adventures only. So we send out flame retardant
messages once a month, and adventure messages about
four times a year. So we took pictures of the
beautiful women who lived in the Himalayas as we walked
across, who did a lot of work. And namaste, the greeting, I
respect the spirit in you. From that trip, I came back and
wanted to share all these auspicious days in the Himalayas
with my friends back in Berkeley. We started to Berkeley
Himalayan Fair. Has anybody here been to
the Himalayan Fair? Sorry, I can’t read the dates. I’ll turn around. Yeah, so next May 18th and 19th,
if you want to come to Berkeley Live Oak Park, we’ll
have a big Himalayan party, food, dancing, and all the
Himalayan people from the West coast come. It’s a great match-making
thing. Nepali people in different
cities, they all come and they meet their husbands and
wives and things at the Himalayan Fair. And I have the best booth
since I founded it. Come say hi. I’m under the big tree right
across from the stage. Everyone’s invited to hang
out at my booth. So my most recent adventures
were with my daughter Annalise, and I rightfully
figured she might not like walking, so when she was a baby,
her dad and I decided we’d have a last big adventure,
and we carried her across the Alps from Yugoslavia
to France in her cute, Gor-Tex baby suit. Anyway, and then here’s Annalist
on her gap year teaching English in Guatemala. Annalise, she’s an environmental
engineer. She doesn’t like hiking
and camping. She complains bitterly about
sleeping on the ground, but she’s an environmental engineer
who studies water and sanitation in developing
countries, so I’m proud of her. She cares about the world. And meanwhile, I wrote
two books. “Annapurna,” which took
about a year to write. Anybody here read “Annapurna?”
Some of you. A few people, yeah. And then after that I thought,
well I’ll spend another year and write a book about how I
came to Annapurna, and wrote “Breaking Trail,” which tells a
lot of stories, and it ended right before my daughter
started college. It took me 20 years to write
“Breaking Trail”– not an easy book– about my childhood,
and it was a tough book. But I wrote it, and then I
actually hadn’t done science for 26 years. I’d been a mom. I’d done leadership training
here in Silicon Valley, and I thought, I want to go back to
science, but I really don’t know anything. And that was six years ago, and
this six years have been the biggest adventure of my
life, much harder than climbing Annapurna, and
way more important. And the problem– before I do that,
maybe just ask. How many people here think if
a product is in your shampoo or your toothpaste, someone’s
making sure it’s safe for your health? OK, and how many people think
there can be cancer-causing, harmful chemicals in an everyday
product, and the EPA knows about it and are powerless
to do anything? And unfortunately, the second is
true, and the reason is we only have one law– so in America, foods, drugs, and
pesticides are regulated. All other chemicals are
regulated by something called the Toxic Substances Control
Act of 1976, and when that passed, it wasn’t a very good
law, and it has no authority. So asbestos, which kills
thousands of people every year, the EPA tried and tried
and cannot regulate. So chemicals can be really
harmful, the EPA can know, and they can be in your
toothpaste. And indeed, if anyone
uses Colgate Total. Anybody use Colgate Total
toothpaste here? My daughter did. It has triclosan in
it, which is a potentially harmful chemical. It’s banned at Kaiser. There are really only a handful
of these real horror stories, and we can learn
these horror stories and protect ourselves, so don’t
get too depressed. There really aren’t tens
of thousands of evil chemicals out there. There’s a small number, and we
can say what they are, and we can be healthier. But the EPA has no authority
basically to regulate. When they passed the Toxic
Substances Control Act, all the chemicals then were
grandfathered as being OK, and with new chemicals they have
no authority to require information, so there’s
no information on most of the new chemicals. So the thing that I have
been working on, and I’ve come to realize– maybe you’ve heard that I work
on flame retardants– but I’ve come to realize the
problem really isn’t flame retardants. And flame retardants are
chemicals that are used at really high levels, like 5% of
the foam in your couch is a flame retardant. But the problem is flammability
standards, and back in the ’70s, several
flammability standards were passed where no on really
thought about do they provide a fire safety benefit, and
is there a harm from the chemicals that are used
to meet them. And the chemicals are
very profitable. The companies that make them do
a lot of lobbying to make new laws that require more of
the use of their chemicals. And this is a very major health
problem, but a solvable health problem, and we’re going
to talk about in the ’70s, there was a furniture
flammability standard passed called Technical Bulletin 117. There was a code for foam
plastic insulations in buildings passed with something
called the Steiner Tunnel Test, and their
flammability standards for electronics, and we’re going
to say the most about Technical Bulletin 117. If you go home and look at your
couch, they’re all going to have a sign saying
it meets TB117. That means the foam inside won’t
burn for 12 seconds with a small flame, but the reality
is if you drop a candle on your couch, the fabric
burns first. You have a large flame, the foam
burns, and there’s really not much benefit. The chemical used to protect all
the furniture uses a flame retardant until it was banned
globally in 2005. In that picture of chemicals,
the top one is PCBs, which are carcinogens and harmful. The center one is that flame
retardant, and then the bottom ones are dioxins and furans,
which are really harmful, so it’s a chemical that’s
halfway in structure between a PCB and a dioxin. When I asked a chemist what do
you think about students at Berkeley being exposed
to this chemical? He said, only in a fume hood
with full protective gear. But that’s what’s in your
furniture if you have furniture from before 2005. So why is this important? We’re exposed to these flame
retardants in our homes, in our office place, in cars, and
they’re slowly making their way into the food chain. Right now, about 90% of the
exposure is in our homes. If you look at levels in dust,
on the left you have outside the US very low levels, other
states in the middle. California has the highest
levels, because we, uniquely, have a furniture flammability
standard. No other state has a standard. Sadly enough, toddlers have
three times the level in their bodies compared to adults,
because they get their mothers level through the placenta. The chemicals are lipophilic,
fat loving, so they go into breast milk, and then toddlers
crawl in the dust and put their hands in their mouths. So a woman who has a higher
level of this flame retardant– this is the one
that was banned, but is in older furniture– it takes longer for her to get
pregnant, and then there are a number of neurological
impairments. And these are actually epidemiology studies in people. There’s maybe 20 or 30 studies
showing harm in people, and then this is the number
of studies in animals. This is well studied. There’s an industry of
scientists around the world studying these flame retardants,
but yet this information never reaches
decision makers. So there’s this many peer
reviewed papers, and if you go to a typical hearing in
Sacramento, you will hear from the chemical industry there is
no valid science showing any harm for many flame retardant. So this is a huge disconnect
that we’re trying to bridge and can bridge, bringing good
science to decision makers. So to give you an example of
what happens, remember back with the children’s sleepwear,
we had brominated tris, it got banned. We got chlorinated tris,
it got banned. In our furniture, we had
[? penta ?], it got banned. Then we got chlorinated tris,
and it is on the way out. Chlorinated tris been listed
as cancer causing, and we stopped making it in the US. Most of the furniture from 2005
till now has chlorinated tris, and the replacement is
something called Firemaster. The manufacturers will not give
out samples to study, but colleagues of mine got one
sample, and it looks like it causes obesity and anxiety, so
it’s an obesogen, so this is the newest flame retardant. So I got my dust tested. I had some of the highest levels
in the world, very high levels of this toxic flame
retardant, 97 parts per million in my dust. So I got rid of my couch. That’s my couch going into the
dumpster, and then three years later my level was down to
three parts per million. So getting rid of toxic
furniture works, but where does the couch go. Into a landfill where it can
leech out into wildlife, and all these top of the food chain carnivores have high levels. So is there a fire safety
benefit, and the answer is not much. If you compare the blue, the
furniture without flame retardants, to the red, with,
you can see there’s a few seconds delay in ignition,
three seconds longer, but twice as much smoke, five times
as much carbon monoxide, and 80 times as much soot. So that means you delay your
fire three seconds, but you get lots more of the smoke
and toxic gases. Let’s just skip to
the next one. So what about legislation? we have tried in California
for six years. There’s been four bills to
change our furniture standard to have increased fire safety
without toxic chemicals. Doesn’t that’s sound
like a good idea? Who do you think might
not like that idea? Right, this is part of a $6
million campaign from Citizens for Fire Safety, and
who are they. Albemarle, Chemtura, Israel
Chemicals Limited, the manufacturers of the chemicals,
and why do they spend $6 million, because the
chemicals are so profitable. I don’t think they do press
releases like this anymore now that I’ve put them on my
slides, but I found in chemical and engineering news
Albemarle proudly announcing a 377% increase in their profits
from their sale of brominated flame retardants. And then Chemtura announcing
they’re raising their prices 25%, in part to pay for
global advocacy. 25%, that’s pretty good. So these three companies
have a global monopoly. They can charge anything they
want, and people have to get their products to abide with
laws, so then they have huge money to make laws, which
used to pass. But if someone happens to bring
a little bit of good science into decision making
they don’t pass, and that’s what we’ve been doing, and we’ve
had some recent help. The Chicago Tribune, if anybody
wants to know all the dirt, this is one of about 20
front page stories in the Chicago Tribune. And again, I can’t quite
remember it, but the subtitle, “A deceptive campaign by
industry brought toxic flame retardants into our homes and
our bodies, and the chemicals don’t even work as promised.”
And this is a total front page, four more pages, issue
after issue of the Tribune exposing the duplicity of this
industry, and that’s been a huge help to our science to
inform policy, which led to, after six years of failed
legislation, last May the governor directed the state
agencies to change our flammability standard to
increase or maintain fire safety without toxic
flame retardants. And that process is
moving forward. It’s a yearlong process. February 1st there’ll be a
public comment period. If any of you signed my mailing
list– has it made it all the way around? Anyway, if anyone hasn’t gotten
the mailing list, if you raise your hand it
might come your way. If you sign it, you will get
a chance to comment in the public comment period that you
might like a couch without flame retardants. And if the process moves, and
it’s moving well, the foam industry, everybody’s in favor
of the change except the three chemical companies. So by next June you should all
be able to buy safer furniture without flame retardants
thanks to the governor. This is a paper where we looked
at what was in 100 baby products, and 80% of them had
toxic flame retardants at levels up to– there was
a changing pad that was 12% tris by weight. And it was funny when we submit
the paper, it was first turned down for not being novel
enough, and then it was the top paper of the year
in this journal, had the most readers. Right, anybody with a child
read the paper. And indeed, based on that, three
baby products have been exempt from requiring the flame
retardants, and when the standard passes all the rest
will be, so the chemicals will not be in our furniture
or our baby products. Just to say something about
building insulation, all these plastic foam insulations that
make buildings energy efficient are treated with
some of the worst flame retardants. There have only been 21
chemicals globally banned, which include several flame
retardants, and the HBCD, which is a– polystyrene is going to be the
22nd globally banned chemical. This is a form of tris that’s
used in blow in and spray insulation. But again, you don’t
really need it. The insulation materials are
behind fire block wall, so before you hit the insulation
you have to burn through the wall, and then at that point
the insulation doesn’t make much of a difference. So we wrote a paper, “Flame
retardants in building installation: a case for
reevaluating building codes,” which is free online
until January 26th if you want to copy. We got them to make it
free for two months. But based on this paper there’s
a code change proposal for the 2015 residential code,
that plastic foam insulations behind fire block walls or
below grade will not be required to have flame
retardants. Oh yeah, and this
was supported– these are the proponents, which
is the US Green Building Council, the Cancer Firefighters
Organization. You can see these are all the
sponsoring organizations who are sponsoring the code change,
so we have a lot of great organizations. And Nancy Skinner, our local
assembly woman, to my great surprise on Monday released
AB127 to change California law so that we are not required
in our codes to have flame retardants in building
insulation, so this is great news, and her staffers that
they plagiarized from our paper for their whole
legislation. So this is a case directly, you
write a good scientific paper, it can be used
for legislation. And to have green buildings,
having good water and all that is important, but if you’re
going to have flame retardants in the insulation it’s never
going to be totally green. So I’m going to put in a word
for our newest thing I’m planning, is the Blue Mountain
Toxics Reduction Retreat. We’d like to get leaders in
government industry, business, nonprofits all together to talk
about the big picture. What are the biggest toxic
threats that we can solve, because I think there are a
handful of things like flame retardants, stain repellents,
triclosan in toothpaste, that are known to be harmful, but
things we just don’t need. So it’s not how do we replace
it, it’s like let’s just not use it, and so I’m hoping
someone from Google might attend our retreat. So when I spoke here last
year, [INAUDIBLE] said make a slide on how Google
can help solve the flame retardant problem, and so
these are some suggestions. Support California code changes
and legislation for fire safety without toxicity,
and so we have the governor’s initiative, which the chemical
industry maybe $100 million to spend to try to defeat it, so
we’re all waiting to see what they’re going to do. I’ve heard that people are
getting phone calls sort of saying, do you know the governor
is going to get rid of this good standard
that saves lives. Are we going to go back
to the bad old days where we all burn. So if you get any of those phone
calls, take notes, let us know, but support the
governor Nancy Skinner’s legislation. Specify no flame retardants
if you can in purchasing. There are products that use
flame retardants where it’s not required. Hopefully you don’t use flame
retardants in Google products if you can. We don’t have much time, but
there are a couple minutes. Are there other things? OK, I’m almost done, and let’s
come back to what other things Google might be able to do. So if you want more information,
you already got a chance to sign our list,
or leave a card at the basket outside. If you want to know more about
us, Google green science policy, and there’s lots and
lots of information about how to have less flame retardants,
safer and healthier products, and I am optimistic. I think the toxic chemical
problem is solvable. We can reduce toxics and have
a healthier world, and it’s just like mountain climbing. You just have to put one step
ahead of the other, and we can reach the summit of a world
with less toxics. Thank you. Do you have a question? AUDIENCE: Hi, I was wondering if
you can talk about how you went about organizing the
expeditions, at the same time having, I assume, a lot of
work to do at school and everything to follow
up on that. As well as, how did you go
about writing the paper without having all
the materials and everything there. How did all of that work out
about being at Everest? ARLENE BLUM: By multitasking
big time. I am a hard worker,
and it was hard. In graduate school I probably
slowed my progress a bit, because I get pretty focused
on these different climbing expeditions. But it’s a good question. Somehow when you’re young you
have a lot of energy, and I think on Everest it was
pretty much written. I was in the editing. I had the figures an the data. I just had to do a bit more
and do some editing, so I didn’t really write
it from scratch. AUDIENCE: But in terms of
planning the expeditions, was it just you didn’t sleep, and
you just did the planning, and then going to school in the day
time, or were there some days that you would just plan
the expedition, not care about school, and then go back. How did you juggle that? ARLENE BLUM: The whole time I
was in grad school, I would climb a lot, every weekend, so
I think it really cut into my climbing when I was planning
an expedition. I probably did less climbing,
but I kept doing my school work, kind of. AUDIENCE: So when you had the
slide up about the TSCA Act, one of the bullet point said
that there’s 20,000 chemicals roughly, and 85% we have
no health data about. But you also said that of all
these chemical, there’s really only a few that are
really bad. ARLENE BLUM: Really bad and at
high levels in our homes. A lot of them are industrial
chemicals. They’re used in processes. We have a lot of chemicals in
our home, but flame retardants are 5% of the weight of the
foam, maybe even 10%, so you have pounds of flame retardants
in your home. AUDIENCE: I guess my question
is, we don’t even have data about 85% of that chemical
inventory, so how do we know that there’s not a lot more
chemical stock out there and in our products that
does provide, or put us close to harm? ARLENE BLUM: One of the
interesting things that we’re talking about now is looking
at classes of chemicals, so similar chemicals have similar
properties so you can sort of generalize, so the class I work
on, organohalogens where you have carbon bonded to
bromine, chlorine, and fluorine are super persistent,
and they stay around a really long time. So anything that stays around
a really long time and is at high levels in your home is
going to be a big problem. So if you’re a chemist,
you can kind of look at a chemical– not always– but you
can kind of guess. And there’s a lot of– certain metals are problems. We sort of know what the things
are in our homes that are the biggest problems. There could be others, but
I’m saying is that there are these obvious– like your red list. There’s kind of low hanging
fruit, toxic things that you know are bad, and in many cases
you don’t need them, so why don’t we just get rid
of the really bad things we don’t need. Flame retardants, because
there’s an industry, they’re profitable. Most of them, the reason we’re
using them is because they’re profitable, but I think that
that can be solved. AUDIENCE: I have a
tiny question. I think I saw one of these
notices on a backpacking tent. Are they also treated with
flame retardants? ARLENE BLUM: They are,
unfortunately. And again, that might be a
time you might want flame retardants, and there are ones
that are safer, and there are ones that are less safe, and
it’s a problem that because the EPA can’t regulate. One of the projects we haven’t
done is to just give the outdoor industry a list of what
they really harmful flame retardants are, and maybe they
could move from the harmful ones to the less harmful ones. And maybe they’re already doing
that, I haven’t looked into it, but lots of industries
are trying to move from more harmful to less
harmful flame retardants and other chemicals. And I’m sure at Google when
you’re doing your products, you’re trying to move– there’s something called the
green screen, where you can compare chemicals. So for backpacking tents you
might want flame retardants, maybe your stove’s going to
explode, but you want to try to have the safest possible
flame retardants, or use materials that are inherently
fire resistant. So there are lots of ways you
can solve the flammability problem without putting
lots of toxic chemicals into things. AUDIENCE: In terms of affecting
policy decisions, what’s the step between
publishing the paper and actually talking to the people
that are making the decisions? ARLENE BLUM: That’s a great
question, because in this field of flame retardants, I go
to meetings with hundreds of scientists who do paper after
paper about the harm and how their accumulating in
everything in the environment, and I’m like, write a
“Scientific American” article, do something. And they’re like, well it’s on
our website, or they can read it in the journals. But scientists have to realize
people aren’t going to read it in the journals, and they’re
not going to go to your website, and scientists have
to take the trouble to put their science in a form
that’s accessible. I’ve been working with
epidemiologists who do studies showing harm in humans, which
is big news, and if they can effectively tell the press, at
least people can find out. So I think not all scientists,
but a small number of scientist, if they could make
that part of their mission, and that’s what we’re
trying to do. There are some scientists who
care about this, and we’re helping do some communications
courses, facilitating scientist talking to decision
makers, because scientists have a lot of credibility. In other words, in addition to
writing the peer reviewed paper, write the white paper,
write the public article. And the problem is, at least
academic scientists are not rewarded for this. It’s almost looked down on. But what I think, in the old
days in academia it was considered bad form
to make money, and bad from to do policy. Nowadays, making money is great,
and I think we have to make it so the doing policy is
great too, that there’s a reward system for taking your
science and using it in the public interest. Because scientists are paid by
the public, and I think they have a responsibility to take
their information and bring it to the decision makers, and it
is a huge vacuum, and very effective when people do. So, other questions. Yes. AUDIENCE: As a former grad
student, how were you able to fund your expeditions? ARLENE BLUM: We funded our
Annapurna expedition selling those t-shirts, the woman’s
place is on top Annapurna. The title got a lot of
attention, and when we walked across the Himalayas, we funded
it by having people come trekking with us
and supporting it. So I think nowadays people get
sponsorships from companies a lot, like the North Face and
stuff have sponsored athletes, and in those days we really
didn’t, so we kind of, as I said, sold t-shirts or treks. We had support treks. It was not easy. Before Annapurna, I thought
that the mountain of t-shirts– the t-shirt business,
remember we sold 80,000 t-shirts, the business
was in my house, and I thought that was even harder
than climbing the mountain, but I was wrong. The mountain was harder. AUDIENCE: About a month ago, I
read a few places, including your newsletter, about
brominated vegetable oil showing up in Gatorade and a
few other sodas, and I was wondering what should we be
avoiding, and also what’s being done since then to try
and get those removed? ARLENE BLUM: Yeah, I’m glad
you brought that up. That is one of the dumbest
ideas around. Back in the ’70s, Europe and
Japan all banned brominated– we’re like the Wild West in
terms of regulation of chemicals, sadly enough. Anyway, so brominated vegetable
oils are used– but it’s very specific– in certain orange sodas, like
orange Fanta, Mountain Dew, certain kinds of Gatorade. Just look on the label. It’ll say brominated vegetable
oils, and they are metabolized, stored in our fat,
and I actually was like a referee for a paper from Germany
on how bad they are, calculating that if a kid lived
on orange Fanta they’d get a pretty high dose, and we
can’t seem to regulate it. We do not have a will to
regulate chemicals, and it’s really sad, because prevention
is the old thing, but prevention is so much cheaper. There’s a limited number of
really bad chemicals in our homes that end up in our bodies,
and they are causing a lot of our cancer, infertility,
neurological problems, and I feel like we
know what they are, and they could be regulated. And I think that’s an example of
a thing that we don’t need. It makes it look like the
orange Fanta has fruit floating in it. It’s kind of a density thing
they put in brominated vegetable oils. So I actually sent out a press
release about that about a year ago, and it got some media
attention, but it’s nobody’s business to regulate
it, I guess. So you read my newsletter, but
I think if people knew that, orange Fanta would
find something. In Germany, they have orange
Fanta without brominated vegetable oil, so that’s the
kind of perfect example of something that if we have
information we can solve, and where scientists can share
that information. I have to say, I reviewed the
paper, gave it high scores, and it was not published because
it was not novel enough, so how science measures
things is not– the people measuring it aren’t
measuring it in terms of public health. The analytic techniques probably
weren’t novel enough, so somehow there’s got to be
some points in paper review and in funding for things that
impact public health, and I’m afraid there isn’t yet. I guess last question. AUDIENCE: I was wondering, is
there an easy, cheap tool that anybody can put– I understand for different
class of chemicals it’s a different things– but that
anybody can put some kind of a chemical, or the dust in their
homes, and easily measure levels of certain toxins? ARLENE BLUM: That
would be great. Maybe someone could
develop that. But when we did our
studies of– we just did a study of what’s
in America’s couches– we were using GC Mass
Spec, which is very expensive and difficult. No, there aren’t, and people
want to know what’s in their couch, and I say, if you live in
California, you don’t need to bother measuring it. But it’s expensive, so there’s
no easy way, and the other part is we don’t really
have labeling. There’s no requirement, and
that’s a very simple thing, and I don’t know if you guys
know that Google has made a huge contribution to
transparency in what’s in buildings, so the US Green
Building Council has had a big effort just to say what’s
in a building. Shouldn’t we know, and the
American Chemical Council completely squashed it in an
ugly way, and Google gave $3 million to the US Green Building
Council to increase transparency. Am I saying that right? OK, and I guess some of the
people in this room– Thank you– were, in part, responsible for
this, so you guys are really contributing, and it’s
really important. When someone builds a building
to be able to know what’s in it, and say– and I think the example I always
give is, one of the most persistent chemicals around
are stain repellents, like they put on carpets. And I always think, if you say
to a mom, so you can have a stain repellent carpet, but when
your baby crawls on it, chemicals are going to go into
their body that they’re going to be there for the rest of
their life, and they’re harmful, or you can not have
such a good stain repellent. What would a mom pick, but
we’re not given that information, so transparency
information, those are things we really, really
should demand. And maybe they’re things
Google can help with. You’re so into free information,
so maybe that’s the connection of why
you gave $3 million. Really great, I hadn’t thought
about that before, but I think with information– that’s really smooth–
information, we can all be healthier. So anyway, the world thanks
you for that $3 million, the USGBC. Well I think we’re out of time,
but does anyone else have any ideas of how
Google can help? That was my question in my
slide, just since you’re all here with information. Well send me an email
if you have one, [email protected],
and I hope some of you will be on our list, and come to the
Himalayan fair, come on a trek, or write in the comment
period that you want furniture without flame retardants. So thank you.

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4 thoughts on “Arlene Blum: “Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life” | Talks at Google

  1. Very informative. Arlene Blum, much admiration for your accomplishments in the mountains and in your bio-chemical endeavors! I am completing my Nepal traverse this year. Can't wait to read your books!

  2. Its so hard to believe how men looked down on women just a generation ago. I am so glad women like this refused to be "put in their place". Now if young women could remember that men are equals too lol.

  3. If you are looking to shed pounds, you should look up on google Fat Blast Blueprint. You are bound to get the body you deserve.

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