"I didn't know you wrote science fiction, Terry," says Arlene Blum.
We're sitting in the coffee lounge at BFR 2013, San Francisco. I've given talks at the conference proper and at Arlene's associated Green Science Policy Institute workshop, and I'm due to sit on the closing discussion panel a little later today. I'm here because of Arlene. She invited me, in keeping with her policy of getting the regulators together with the scientists whose work can inform new regulation.
I've attended dozens of talks here from scientists and researchers reporting on their findings of the pervasiveness of brominated flame retardants, in humans, animals and the environment. Earlier today, for example, I listened to a scientist talk about the high levels of BFRs he'd found in raptors in Alaska, demonstrating how far these chemicals circulate. He also found DDT in the same raptors, which of course was banned over 40 years ago. While these papers cover small research areas in themselves, taken together the negative effects of these chemicals is overwhelming.
And Arlene is right, the scientists tend to be not very interested in how their work might be used to form new regulation. They just do it and publish, and leave it to others to put it into practice. Earlier, she'd introduced me to a prominent British scientist who for years has been measuring the build-up of flame retardants in house dust. When she suggested we might team up, he just looked puzzled and said, "It's all online."
Just a couple of months ago Oliver Letwin, Cabinet Minister, had asked for briefing on one of Arlene's papers. Later, he followed up with a meeting at No 9 Downing Street with myself, David Mortimer of the Food Standards Agency and two other officials. He made the valid point to me that while the UK's Furniture Regulations are saving around 54 lives per year, there could be thousands of people contracting cancers from the flame retardants in our sofas. I agreed and told him about our plans to change the match test. He also asked if we could find out what's in house dust and one of the officials reported that the Department for Health had just bought a very expensive machine to measure just that. Letwin was pleased but by the time I left the civil service in 2016, there was no news of whatever results the machine had come up with.
So maybe Arlene is only half-right: the scientists need to talk to the regulators more but some of the regulators need to, well, talk to everyone a bit more.
Along with the scientists, there are plenty of people here from the chemical industry, including Wilhelm from ICL, who I will meet several more times over the next couple of years. Wilhelm sat in on Arlene's day, too. I still don't understand how anyone can listen to such convincing evidence of the negative effects of the products his company produces without it having any effect on his thinking. Or his career, which is probably more to the point.
"I started as a children's writer," I say, "but I got fed up with how publishing was becoming more about selling products than great writing. So I switched to science fiction since that was what I grew up reading most."
"I was once invited to spend some time with Arthur C Clarke on his island," says Arlene, just as if that was as common as popping into McDonald's. "I was on my way back from an expedition . . . "
Amongst other 'expeditions', Arlene led the first-ever all-female party to climb Annapurna. "I also used to go for tea at Marion Zimmer Bradley's house," she continues. Of course, I think. Zimmer Bradley wrote the hugely successful 'Mists of Avalon', which I really enjoyed, not least because it's a retelling of the Arthur story. "I complemented her on getting the mountaineering details so right in one of her novels, and she said, 'Well, I stole them from your book!'"
I never met any of my SF writer heroes but I tell Arlene about my story called "Guy" that was published a couple of months ago in Penumbra Magazine. The brief was to write a story in the style of Ray Bradbury, who was my first writing hero. I'd never tried anything like that before but in the event really I enjoyed it, as well as finding it a creative stretch. I was delighted when Jonathan Eller, author of a brilliant biography on Bradbury, written in collaboration with the author, told me that my story was one of the best he'd ever read, inspired by Ray's style and legacy.
Then Arlene and I discuss the poster that one of her students has displayed at the conference, that is very critical of the UK's Furniture Regulations. While I agree with Arlene's take on the harmful effects of flame retardants, I don't agree with her contention that no furniture fire regulations actually work. David Mortimer, who is also at this conference, and I have tried a couple of times to get her to see reason. Okay, she is working on getting flame retardants out of US furniture but the fact is their flammability requirements are much milder than ours, so it's possible here, but not in the UK.
Of course, back in 2013 I believed that the Furniture Regulations fully worked and that the report we'd commissioned in 2009, into their effectiveness, was entirely accurate. Now, I know that is not the whole story by any means.
Arlene is currently working with the Chicago Tribune on the issue of flame retardants in furniture. And later in 2013, an HBO movie, "Toxic Hot Seat", directed by Robert Redford's son, will go on to win lots of film awards. But more importantly it will show how the flame retardant industry manipulated facts, bought fire officials and generally lied about their products in order to maintain huge profits in the US. At BFR, I'm not entirely sure, half believing that things are different in the UK.
Of course, they're not. Same flame retardant companies. Same manipulations. Same lies.