How safe is your raincoat? Or your carpet? Biophysical chemist Arlene Blum, the director of the Green Science Policy Institute, is speaking in Anchorage Tuesday about how the chemicals in our everyday items could be impacting our health.
Arlene Blum: There are certain families of chemicals that are known to be harmful. One example, people may not realize is stain-repellants, like Scotch-Guard which is used to make Gore-Tex and Teflon. Those are some of the most persistent chemicals. Like they won’t break down for a million years and the ones that have been studied are toxic. So making a choice to use a chemical that never breaks down that’s toxic, is a big choice for the world. And also if they are going to end up inside of you or your family, it’s a big choice for you.
Anne Hillman: So this is Alaska. We all rely fairly heavily on things like Gore-Tex. Is that a problem? Do we need to be concerned about that?
AB: So, it’s better to limit your use if you really need it. Like I sort of say, well, if you’re going to go climb Mount Everest maybe you really need it. But I actually made the second American assent of Everest and we didn’t have any Gore-Tex when we climbed Everest. But it’s also in bathing suits and surf shorts so they’ll dry faster and you don’t need it.
AH: Why should we be concerned about having these chemicals around us?
AB: Well, because they are harmful to our health and the health of animals and the environment. And a lot of these chemicals don’t occur naturally in any mammals. And so our bodies don’t know how to deal with them. So they can just go into our bodies cause the defense mechanisms don’t see them and they stay because the things that clean the toxins out of our cells don’t recognize them so they tend to be harmful.
AH: What kinds of things can they do to our bodies?
AB: Some of them will increase the likelihood of getting cancer. A number of them, for example, flame-retardants and stain-repellants, when a woman has a higher level in her body, her children are more likely ot have neurological impairments, lowered IQs. Endocrine disruptors. A lot of them are endocrine disruptors, which means they mess up the hormonal balance in our bodies which can lead to obesity, diabetes. Lots of different problems.
AH: You’re speaking here in Anchorage not just about chemicals but also about your mountaineering experiences. How do those two intersect?
AB: Well, they’re remarkably similar. I led the first am assent of Annapurna I, which has the highest fatality rate of any of the 8,000 meter peaks. And I also led the first women’s assent of Denali, which was all pretty challenging. And I like to say that when I’m doing my environmental health work, I feel just like I’m on Annapurna or Denali. We know what the summit is. The summit is a healthier world with less toxic chemicals and we even kind of know how to get there. But there are avalanches and yetis and storms and many, many obstacles. And you just kind of have to keep picking your foot up and putting it down and plodding upward. And that’s kind of how working on chemicals to make the world healthier or climbing mountains — it’s the same patient, painstaking process.