It’s Just Chemistry: Healthier buildings can have less harmful chemicals, with Arlene Blum, PhD

We had the privilege of hosting a healthy buildings event (see: Healthy Buildings: Reducing Use of Harmful Chemicals | Kaiser Permanente Center for Total Health) with our friends at US Green Building Council (@USGBC) featuring Arlene Blum, PhD  author, mountaineer, and founder of the Green Science Policy Institute, on reducing the use of flame retardants and the “Six Classes” of harmful chemicals.

As Arlene told us, “It’s just chemistry,” and detailed the properties of synthetic chemicals that have half-lives of two-thousand years, I harkened back to my organic chemistry experience in college which was less than successful for me (I’m not a very good cook, either). This time it was fine, she made it easy to understand.

The good news, as she explained, is that it’s easy to understand the health challenges of certain chemicals in terms of classes of chemicals, rather than specific ones, and there’s a web site, aptly named to walk you through them, in short order (15 minutes).

A healthier health system uses less harmful chemicals

As I went through the six classes curriculum, I was glad to see that Kaiser Permanente has led the industry in banning the use of the antimicrobial triclosan, which is an endorcine disruptor, estrogen enhancer, and testosterone blocker, for people who would rather not have their testosterone blocked or estrogen enhanced.

Same goes for halogenated flame retardants, which it turns out don’t retard fires (well, they allow the filling of furniture to withstand an open flame 12 seconds, unfortunately fires start in fabric not in fillings) and also damage endocrine, reproductive, and thyroid systems in the body (I see a recurring theme). Kaiser Permanente is going to work with suppliers to phase out halogenated flame retardants in medical furniture. And it’s not about phasing out compounds in just 38 hospitals, it’s about changing the market for these compounds at the level of procurement across the industry.

Green Chemistry

I first learned about the topic of Green Chemistry when I was at CleanMed Europe last year (see: CleanMed Europe LastDay: “Sustainable health system” definition : different here | Ted Eytan, MD), and I learned that there is such a thing (see:, there are scientists in the field, and it makes a difference. Some of the most common drugs used in medicine today are made using very toxic processes, and they shouldn’t have to be.

Finding and using safer chemicals is the responsibility of a health system, and it can be done: Kaiser Permanente Share | Environmental Stewardship | Safer Chemicals.

Interesting and great that scientists and mountaineers, architects, doctors, and building engineers in 2014 have a lot in common when it comes to spreading health, isn’t it 🙂

Rest of my photos are below, creative commons licensed, enjoy


Ted Eytan, MD