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Scientist Discusses Health, Campus Sustainability

By R. Blake Paterson, Contributing Writer

Scientist and public health advocate Arlene D. Blum discussed her research and advocacy work surrounding “harmful” chemicals found in consumer products and how that work relates to campus sustainability in an event hosted by the Harvard Office for Sustainability Thursday afternoon.

Blum, founder and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, spoke about six classes of chemicals commonly used by manufacturers and the harmful effects she said they can have on consumers.

Blum reviewed each category of chemicals separately, asking whether using each class was worth its risk and if safer, greener alternatives exist.

Blum also discussed her efforts to reduce what she called harmful flame retardant chemicals in consumer products. In an interview after the talk, she highlighted the Office for Sustainability’s initiative to provide the campus with furniture free of these chemicals.

“They are actively trying to switch to furniture without flame retardants when they buy new furniture,” Blum said. “[That] is something that I have seen other campuses start trying to do, but it’s only recently possible.”

Blum described Harvard’s leadership in the higher education community, and the unique role of college campuses in spreading the discussion about more sustainable consumer products.

“Harvard is really taking a leadership role with their sustainability plan and moving to help clear their most toxic products,” Blum said. “College campuses are a great place to take leadership in new sustainable products reducing toxics. It’s educational for the students, and it sets a good example for the community.”

After the talk, Heather A. Henriksen, director of the Office for Sustainability, said that Blum’s research fits into the office’s initiative to better the health and well-being of the Harvard community, one of five aspects of its sustainability plan for Harvard.

“The way that Arlene Blum’s research comes into play is to better educate us about these classes of chemicals that have an impact on public health,” Henriksen said. “[With Blum’s research] we understand what those chemicals are and then cross reference that with manufactures who are putting materials into our buildings.”

The event was part of Harvard University Climate Week, which aims to expose the Harvard community and interested members of the public to “some of the best scholarship and thinking related to climate change,” according to its website.

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