Women in the Environment: An Interview with Arlene Blum

I recently had the privilege of sitting down for a chat with biophysical chemist, author, and mountaineer Arlene Blum, recently selected by the UK’s Guardian as one of the world’s 100 most influential women alongside the likes of ecofeminists Wangari Maathai and Vandana Shiva.

Though the honor was great, Blum admitted she was a little disappointed.

“When I found out, I went to look at the list, hoping to find my name under the ‘Science & Medicine’ section, but they placed me in the ‘Sports & Adventure’ category.”

True, Dr. Blum originally found her fame as a mountaineer, leading the first all-women expeditions of Alaska’s Mt McKinley and Nepal’s Annapurna (previously only climbed by eight people, all men), but she’s also developed a meaningful female presence in environmental science.

Attending MIT and UC Berkley, Blum received her Ph.D. in biophysical chemistry and, through her research in the 1970s,  discovered that the flame retardant used in kid’s pajamas was probably cancer causing.

The death of an environmentalist friend on a climbing expedition combined with a desire to “help the world,” led Blum to co-found the Green Science Policy Institute in 2007, a group dedicated to providing unbiased scientific data to government, industry, and non-governmental organizations to facilitate more informed decision-making about chemicals used in consumer products.

“I’ve always wanted to take my [knowledge of] science and apply it to solving problems.”

Blum has an infinity for doing what supposedly cannot be done.  As a member of a college climbing club, she was told she wouldn’t be allowed to go on an expedition because she was a woman.  She would have to stay at base camp and cook because she wouldn’t have the “emotional stability or physical strength”  to make the ascent.

What inspired Blum to lead her own expeditions?  The fact that women weren’t allowed to.

She says that much of what she learned climbing extends to her work in the sciences:  “I’m often told that what I’m going to do is ‘absolutely impossible,’ but that’s how climbing was supposed to be too.”

Her written works include Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life, Annapurna: A Woman’s Place, as well as an afterword contribution to Joyce Egginton’s The Poisoning of Michigan.

Learn more about the Green Science Policy Institute and Blum’s writing, and see photos of her expeditions by visiting arleneblum.com.

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