Why scientists need better communication strategies

20 Apr 2022

Image: Arlene Blum

Arlene Blum successfully helped to ban a harmful flame retardant from children’s pyjamas in the 1970s. However, lobbyists, PR strategies and misinformation campaigns mean scientists’ fight against chemicals of concern is ongoing.

In the 1970s, a chemical known as Tris was used as a flame retardant in children’s pyjamas. The chemical was believed to slow down the burning of materials, buying people extra minutes to save themselves from potential house fires.

However, biochemical scientists Arlene Blum and Bruce Ames found Tris to be a gene-altering agent that could cause cancer. They published their findings in Science in 1977 and three months later Tris was banned from being used in sleepwear. However, that’s far from the end of the story.

In an interview with SiliconRepublic.com, Blum said that while one form of Tris, brominated Tris, was banned from use, it was “replaced with its chemical cousin, chlorinated Tris”.

After another scientific paper that showed chlorinated Tris was similarly harmful, Blum said sleepwear manufacturers stopped using that too.

“I was happy to see good science inform policy and business to make the world healthier. Then I took 26 years off from science to focus on mountaineering, leadership training and raising my daughter.”

Outside of being one of the leading scientists behind the original ban of Tris, Blum has had a varied career as both an accomplished scientist and a skilled mountaineer.

She led the first all-women ascent of Annapurna, one of the world’s most dangerous and difficult mountains, she completed the Great Himalayan Traverse across the mountain regions of Bhutan, Nepal and India, and she hiked the length of the European Alps with her baby daughter on her back.

She has also written two books about mountain climbing – Annapurna: A Woman’s Place and Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life.

‘Phasing out one chemical can take years of scientific research and advocacy’

In 2006, Blum decided to re-enter the world of science, only to face the same battle against the same harmful chemical from the 1970s.

“When I returned to science, I discovered that the same chlorinated Tris was being used in furniture and baby products’ foam across North America. That’s when I founded the Green Science Policy Institute.”

The Green Science Policy Institute was founded in 2008 in California. It develops and communicates peer-reviewed research about chemicals of concern, with the aim to inform and change policy, manufacturing and purchasing practices around the use of harmful chemicals and, ultimately, move away from them altogether.

“For more than a decade, our institute has partnered with other scientists to research harmful chemicals in consumer products and communicate our findings to decision-makers in government and business,” said Blum.

A headshot of Arlene Blum.

Image: Arlene Blum

“Our early research focused on harmful flame retardant chemicals that were added to baby products and furniture to meet an outdated and ineffective California flammability standard. That standard was updated in 2013 thanks to widespread communication of scientific research and advocacy.”

Blum said the institute continues to investigate other uses of flame retardants, such as in electronics, building materials and vehicles. “We also carry our research and communicate our findings on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and their unnecessary uses in food packaging, cosmetics, carpeting and other products,” she said.

“I know first-hand that phasing out one chemical can take years of scientific research and advocacy, and that the replacement for a phased-out chemical is usually another that is very similar in structure, function and harm. That’s why nearly a decade ago our institute came up with the idea of managing whole classes of chemicals of concern. Now we’re seeing the class concept catch on.”

In Europe, similar restrictions have been put in place against the unnecessary use of harmful chemicals. In 2019, the European Commission banned the use of halogenated flame retardants in televisions, monitors and digital signage displays. The ban came into effect in March 2021.

Despite pushback from chemical industry lobbyists, the General Court of the EU ruled earlier this year that the ban would remain in place.

Disinformation and communication

Blum said the fight against harmful chemicals such as Tris is an uphill battle, both due to the volume of chemicals that exist in the products around us and the PR machine that is so often ready to fight against facts.

A series of investigative articles from the Chicago Tribune in 2012 not only highlighted the deceptive campaigns behind the push for these chemicals, but also exposed issues within the information being presented – including how effective the chemicals even were at slowing down fires.

A 2014 documentary Merchants of Doubt, inspired by a book of the same name, delved further into the broad use of lobbying techniques, specifically referencing the use of Tris as a flame retardant.

‘Papers need to reach an audience beyond those who read the journal in which they’re published’

These PR techniques have been around for decades and have been used to create sophisticated misinformation campaigns relating to other areas such as the climate crisis and the negative effects of tobacco products.

“The chemical industry can and does hire major public relations firms to prop up biased studies and misinformation campaigns. It’s a stark contrast to the academic scientists who are doing better science but only have access to overstretched university public information officers, or sometimes no communications support at all,” said Blum.

“That’s why a huge priority for us is sharing our successful communications strategy with other scientists. We held a workshop, published an article in Nature, and continue to evangelise about the basics of getting research covered in the media. For example, many scientists don’t know that they should share their paper under embargo with reporters before it’s published.”

Blum added that it’s important to equip as many scientists as possible with solid communication skills to level the playing field with big industries. This is one of the biggest things she would like to see change within the science space.

“To have an impact and improve the world, papers need to reach an audience beyond those who read the journal in which they’re published.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic