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Get Off That Killer Couch! A day in the elements with Arlene Blum 

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Did you know that your couch could kill you?

Yes, that inviting haven ofcomfort in your living room could actually be overstuffed with carcinogens. Every day, your friendly sofa may be burping off deadly gases and cancer-causing dust may be gathering on your lovely wool carpet.

Go flip over the cushions on your couch right now and look for a tag. If it says that it complies with "California Technical Bulletin 117," then you've got a killer couch.

Arlene Blum has the data to prove it, but so far not enough people are listening. Arlene, a biophysical chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, is the founder of the Green Science Policy Institute. She also happens to be a pioneering mountaineer who led the first all-women teams up Denali and Annapurna in the 1970s.

Arlene was in Bend this past weekend and I had the opportunity to ski with her to Todd Lake and eat dinner at Toomie's. Although she graduated from Reed College in Portland and fell in love with climbing on Mt. Hood, she had never been to Bend before. It was fun to show this world-class mountaineer the beauty of our own Cascade peaks.

"This is what I love to do," she smiled as we basked in the sunshine, admiring Broken Top. I thought we might chat about mountains, but what Arlene really wanted to talk about was molecules.

Brominated and chlorinated Tris, to be specific.

In the late seventies, Blum studied flame retardant chemicals and discovered that children's pajamas were treated with the cancer-causing Tris compounds. Her work led to a ban of Tris from children's sleepwear by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1977.

In 2006, Arlene's cat, Midnight, developed hyperthyroidism and eventually died. Arlene began to suspect the sofa that Midnight loved to curl up on. When she tested Midnight's blood and the dust in her house, she found extremely high levels of toxic flame retardant chemicals called PBDEs. Furniture manufacturers added PBDEs to foam as a flame retardant from the 1980s until California banned it in 2003 due to negative health effects.

It turns out they replaced it with Tris. Millions of pounds of these toxic chemicals are now in the foam in our furniture, baby products like nursing pillows and high chairs, and building insulation.

Chemicals in this family have been found to cause health problems like cancer, infertility, lowered IQ, thyroid disorders, endocrine disruption and birth defects, even at very low doses. Many of these chemicals are long-lived and accumulate, especially in people and animals.

Oregon is particularly vulnerable because California furniture is distributed throughout our state. Now scientists are finding toxic flame retardants from California furniture in outrageously high levels in the Columbia River salmon.

Why is our furniture poisoning our homes and our rivers? It's because of California Technical Bulletin 117 which sets flammability standards for the foam in furniture and baby products sold in California. TB117 is mostly supported by the companies that manufacture the flame retardant chemicals and profit from selling them. There is no data to show that this standard actually prevents fire deaths.

Now it is Arlene's mission to overturn TB117 and keep these deadly toxics out of our environment. And I have no doubt that this strong, intelligent woman who has stood at the summit of many of the highest peaks in the world will succeed. After spending a weekend with Arlene, I know the secret of her success: extreme passion and determination.

Having flown up to Bend from sea level, Arlene was feeling the effects of our altitude. We sat in the snow and talked at Todd Lake for quite a while and when we were ready to leave, I offered to carry her backpack. She accepted, and somehow it made me feel good to be connected to her pioneering expeditions in this small way. If there is one thing mountain expeditions require, it's teamwork. Arlene is leading a new expedition to create a healthier planet, but she needs porters to help spread the word.

So what can we do?

* Don't buy furniture or baby products containing polyurethane foam with a label stating they meet the California flammability requirements such as TB117.

* Check the label on your furniture and baby products. If you find a TB117 label, e-mail to receive information on how to reduce the toxics in your home.

* Visit to learn more.

"Stopping toxics to protect our health is similar to climbing Annapurna," Arlene said. "With a team like the concerned citizens here in Bend, we can reach the summit. Together we can succeed in protecting the health of our children and our planet."


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