Scientist, Uninterrupted: Interview with Dr. Theo Colborn
By Catherine Buni
More than 25 years ago, Dr. Theo Colborn blazed the trail in endocrine disruption research, facing detractors at every turn. In 2013, at 86, Colborn announced she would step down as president of the nonprofit she founded, The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), to promote chemical safety. But she’s still working.
In 1985, when she was 58, Dr. Theo Colborn moved from Paonia, Colorado, to Washington, D.C. She’d just earned her Ph.D. in zoology, having left behind a successful career as a pharmacist. For two years, as a Congressional Fellow in the Office of Technology Assessment, she pored over research on air pollutants and ozone. Then, in 1987, she took a job as a scientist at the Conservation Foundation (affiliated with the World Wildlife Fund). Birds, mammals, and fish were struggling to survive on the Great Lakes—cancer, immune and fertility failure, newborn birds born without eyes, wasting away and dying. But dangerous algae blooms and trash along the shores had disappeared. Why were these animals failing to thrive? What were we not seeing in our testing? Colborn had a hunch.
Perplexed by the Great Lakes paradox, Colborn began hunting down scientific papers documenting the effects of synthetic chemicals on wildlife around the world—in Florida, the Baltic, the high Arctic, the Great Lakes, and Siberia’s Lake Baikal. “In the beginning I worried about the wildlife. But, then,” she says, “there was more.”
As a girl named Theodora Decker, growing up in rural Warren County, New Jersey, Colborn loved to wade in the creek that ran below the family farmhouse. She looked for crayfish, and the creatures who clung to the bottoms of stones she overturned. “Rachel Carson’s TheSense of Wonder describes so well the innate curiosity I have always had about natural things,” Colborn said last winter. “I always asked lots of questions, and nobody ever had the answers.”
Colborn entered high school in 1940, “an era,” she said, “when scientific courses were strictly for boys.” She started calling herself Theo, took the science courses, and aced every one. But then her father, who’d had a great run as a cookie salesman until that point, was called to work in the factory, paid by the hour, making K-ration biscuits for WWII servicemen. “There was no way I could go to college,” she said. “But I wanted never to get in the position my father was in at that time.”
Recognizing Colborn’s gift for science, Colborn’s high school counselor arranged a visit to Rutgers University College of Pharmacy. “I loved what I saw there,” Colborn said, “but I knew I couldn’t apply.” And, so, a week after graduating high school, she took a job as a lab technician. Two weeks later, recommended by Rutgers, she won a full four-year scholarship from the Vicks Chemical Company. Under wartime pressure to produce medical personnel, Colborn finished her four-year pharmacy degree in less than three. She also met her husband-to-be, Harry Colborn, a WWII veteran studying pharmacy on the GI Bill. Over the next 30 years, Colborn raised four children, owned three pharmacies, and moved to Paonia, Colorado, where she started raising purebred sheep in her scant free time. But, she said, this was not enough.
In Paonia, coal and agriculture were in battle. “The government decided that it was going to sacrifice our valley for its coal,” she said. Air, water, land, people—all were threatened by the coal industry’s plan to expand. Colborn loved the West, its precious little clean water. She wanted good data to fight back. She didn’t have it. Within a year, she’d returned to college. Eight years later, she held a masters and a Ph.D. Her children grown and graduated from college (one daughter, now a vet, took the sheep) and her marriage ended (Harry was unhappy with her decisions, she said), Colborn packed her bags for D.C.
In the D.C. offices of the World Wildlife Fund, Colborn assimilated some 24,000 reports. What she found surprised and troubled her. Yes, everyday synthetic chemicals caused cancer in laboratory animals. But even in trace amounts—amounts so small they’d never been tested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—DDT, PCBs, and other synthetic chemicals containing chlorine appeared to overwhelm natural hormone systems in wildlife and laboratory animals, causing neurological, metabolic, and behavioral abnormalities, as well as freakish genitals. More disturbing, the hormone-disrupting chemicals appearing in wildlife could also be found in humans at increasing rates, in places as remote as the Arctic Circle. And the population most severely affected appeared to be the children of mothers who’d been exposed.
One of the studies that Colborn considered reported that children of mothers who had eaten two to three meals of Great Lakes fish a month were born sooner, weighed less, and had visible changes in their brains (as demonstrated by MRIs). The more PCBs found in umbilical cord blood, the more poorly the child tested for neurological development.
In 1996, writing with journalist Dianne Dumanoski and scientist John Peterson Myers, Colborn reported the new science on synthetic chemicals in the book Our Stolen Future. Described as “a frightening, detective-style narrative” by TheWall Street Journal, Our Stolen Future was aggressively vilified by industry insiders—“innuendo on top of hypothesis on top of theory,” wrote one. So, too, was Colborn.
But Colborn kept pushing, publishing hotly contested papers and advocating better monitoring on boards and committees, including EPA’s Science Advisory Board, the Ecosystem Health Committee of the International Joint Commission of the U.S. and Canada, and EPA’s Endocrine Disruption Methods and Validation Subcommittee.
It has now been nearly 20 years since Colborn sat on the EPA’s first Endocrine Disruptor Screening and Testing Advisory Committee, yet the EPA still has not approved suggested testing protocols. How could this happen?
“Our government operates via the stakeholder approach,” says Colborn, “where those who are creating the problem are invited to solve the problem.”
Since WWII, she says, some 100,000 chemicals have been manufactured and sold to make plastics, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, fire retardants, herbicides, pesticides, toys, food storage containers, furniture, carpets, computers, phones, appliances, and more. But “only a pittance have been thoroughly tested for their effects on the endocrine system.” Currently, TEDX’s list of potential endocrine disruptors is 1,000 chemicals long.
“The government requires industry to test for cancer,” she says, “but not for any connection with the increasing epidemics of endocrine system-related disorders.” Colborn’s list includes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, intelligence and behavioral problems, diabetes, obesity, cancers, abnormal genitalia, infertility, and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. “Disorders connected with endocrine disrupting chemicals are costing families and governments a fortune,” she says. And, as natural gas production explodes across the U.S., including increasing use of hydraulic fracturing, the threat of endocrine disrupting chemical contamination is growing.
Colborn stresses the difficult nature of the research and testing, and the risk and repercussions of pushing for data and accountability. In a February 2014 New Yorker articleabout Syngenta, the manufacturer of the herbicide atrazine (suspected of causing birth defects in animals and humans),journalist Rachel Aviv described Colborn as the scientist who “popularized the theory that industrial chemicals could alter hormones.” Aviv also detailed how Syngenta pursued Tyrone Hayes, a researcher and one-time colleague of Colborn’s. “[W]hile Hayes was studying atrazine, Syngenta was studying him,” Aviv reported. The company “drafted a list of four goals. The first was ‘discredit Hayes.’”
And yet, to do nothing in the face of the weight of the evidence is not an option, says Colborn.
“There have been a lot of knives out to get her, because she’s been on the leading edge,” says Rich Liroff, the World Wildlife Fund senior program officer who hired Colborn in 1987. “She’s been very brave.”
In 2002, Colborn returned home to Colorado full-time. A year later, in a remodeled Harvester Tractor repair garage in downtown Paonia that could accommodate a 20-year, 10,000-pound collection of journal articles and government documents, she launched The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX).
Today, Colborn is no longer marginalized as a “bunny hugger” (her words) who asks too many questions. TEDX is internationally recognized for its education and advocacy, and its website includes Colborn’s long list of awards and honors: Honorary Doctor of Science from the University of Colorado, the TIME Global Environmental Heroes Award, the International Blue Planet Award, the National Council on Science and the Environment Lifetime Achievement Award, and four different Rachel Carson Awards.
Colborn likes to quote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Once committed, all good things will come your way.” And committed she remains. “Whenever I can,” she says, “I will help physicians, nurses, and other health professionals understand the insidious effects of natural gas extraction on communities and individuals.” She’s also working to secure funding for an air-sampling program conducted by people living in gas patches. She’s reading books and writing essays. “But,” she says, “I intend to dedicate most of my time left to spreading the word that fossil fuels are not only linked to climate change but also to the plethora of epidemics resulting from exposure to their end-use products.” The skyrocketing costs related to all this, she says, “are undermining the global economy and efforts to restore world peace.”
Catherine Buni is a writer and editor whose stories have been published in The Atlantic Online, Outside, and The Writer, among others. She is an editorial advisor for the journal Appalachia. Read more of her work at catherinebuni.com.