When a Chemist and Environmentalist Meet

How do a biophysical chemist and a steadfast environmentalist find their way to accepting one of the top honors in the commercial interior design industry? The two honorees of the Leadership Award of Excellence at this year’s IIDA Leaders Breakfast San Francisco are renowned in this industry, but not how the general audience is involved. Their journeys are separated by their personal feats and intertwined by their commitment to advocating for reducing the use of harmful flame retardant chemicals in the products and furniture of which the industry’s designers and representatives create, sell, and use in their everyday lives.

Arlene Blum, Ph. D., executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, and Judy Levin, director of the Center for Environmental Health’s (CEH) Pollution Prevention, joined efforts in 2012 to revise the outdated standard which allowed the use of harmful flame retardant chemicals in furniture and baby product foam across the U.S. and Canada. The same toxic chemical Blum successfully helped remove from children’s pajamas in 1978 had continued to be used in furniture. Advocating for the supply and demand of healthier furniture, Blum continued her efforts on working with and educating furniture and foam manufacturers, which she initially started in 2006. Meanwhile, Levin took the other side of the message and began educating the designers and purchasers.  Levin has successfully enlisted an impressive list of purchasing companies such as Facebook, Kaiser Permanente, HDR Architecture, and Perkins+Will to express their desire to buy retardant-free furniture using the “Purchasers Pledge.”

With the support of California’s governor, Jerry Brown, and a California-based flame retardant coalition, co-led by Levin and the CEH, the California furniture flammability standard was finally changed so that flame retardants are no longer needed in furniture and baby products. Along with furniture, these requirements have also led to ability of manufacturers to meet the new standards without the use of toxic flame retardants in mattress pads and children’s products such as changing pads and strollers. In 2010, the Green Science Policy Institute’s work helped prevent a new standard that would have led to flame retardants in pillows mattress pads and comforters – another huge victory for the public’s health, environment, as well as fire safety. The new furniture flammability standard in California has become a de facto national standard.

Blum and Levin first collaborated in 2008 on preventing a new requirement that would have led to flame retardants in electronics enclosures. At the time, Levin was developing an ecolabel (EPEAT) for electronic devices by developing criteria to restrict the use of harmful flame retardant chemicals, all the while Blum worked on the international standards that would promote the use of flame retardants in electronics worldwide. The two, along with a small but active group of allies, are responsible for thwarting international standards that would have led to the use of billions of pounds of flame retardants in electronics cases around the world.

Most recently, Blum and Levin collaborated to prevent new and potentially harmful furniture flammability standards which are under consideration by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In 2014, CEH co-sponsored a bill that now requires manufacturers who sell furniture in California to label their products for the presence or absence of flame retardant chemicals. A bill to require the labeling of flame retardants in children’s products is in progress and will be voted on by this September. The Green Science Policy Institute continues to educate purchasers, designers, retailers, and manufacturers to reduce the use of whole classes of harmful chemicals.

Read more about the honorees:
How Dangerous Is Your Couch?
Kicking Toxic Chemicals Out Of The Office: An Easy Guide To Going Flame Retardant Free 
VIDEO: A Flame Retardant That Came With Its Own Threat to Health
Are You Safe on that Sofa?
Green Science Policy Institute Consumer Resources
Six Classes: A Webinar Series on Chemicals of Concern
Major Producers Eliminating Flame Retardant Chemicals as Major Buyers Are Demanding Flame Retardant-Free Furniture


Learn more about IIDA Leaders Breakfast and purchase your tickets!

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