A mountain of furniture to climb

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Doug Krizner: Thirty years ago one scientist made it her mission to make sure your kids don't sleep in poisonous pajamas. Back then she discovered chemicals used to makes PJs fire retardant were dangerous. Today she's back with her ongoing battle against potentially hazardous chemicals. A profile now from Sasha Aslanian of American RadioWorks.


Sasha Aslanian: California chemist Arlene Blum says she does her best thinking while she's climbing mountains. She even likes to do interviews while hiking in the Berkeley Hills near her home.

Thirty years ago, Blum published an influential paper showing that a flame retardant called Tris caused cells to mutate. Tris was used in children's pajamas, and the chemicals were getting into kids' bodies.

Arlene Blum: You can imagine how mothers felt. People were outraged and they were trying to just have kids wear, you know, sweatsuits or buy their sleepwear from England. And then the cancer results came out and it was banned in three months.

With Tris banned from jammies, Blum hung up her scientific career and became a professional mountain climber. Then, last year, Blum learned her old enemy, Tris, was back. Not in sleepwear, but upholstered furniture.

That's because 10 states had banned two other flame retardants, so manufacturers reached for the old, reliable Tris as a replacement.

Blum: And when I learned about the fact that the Tris I banned from pajamas was now in all our furniture in California, I found my challenge.

Blum says she found her next mountain. She's the scientific advisor for a bill in the California Assembly that would stop the cycle of replacing one problematic chemical with another.

John Kyte with the flame retardant industry opposes the bill:

John Kyte: It seeks to eliminate two entire classes of flame retardants. It will result in a diminishment of fire safety, and we could end up using products about which much, much less is known from both a human health and environmental safety perspective.

But Blum says it's up to the chemical companies to find new chemicals that are safer. For now, states are taking their own crack at eliminating harmful chemicals.

In St. Paul, Minn., I'm Sasha Aslanian for Marketplace and American RadioWorks.

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