A local heroine

by Ed Marston




We ran into Paonia's foremost scientist near our office a few evenings ago, where she was arguing with the cash machine at First National Bank. It beeped insistently at her, until she pushed the right combination of buttons and got it to disgorge her credit card and some cash.


It was a rare sighting. Dr. Theo Colborn is no longer an easy woman to find in what used to be her home valley. From the mid-1960s into the early 1980s, she was the fill-in pharmacist in Paonia, Hotchkiss, Delta and Montrose, dispensing advice along with prescriptions.


She did more than simply fill prescriptions; she asked questions. She wondered why arthritis is more common in the Paonia area than in Gunnison, two hours away, and why babies carried to term above 7,000 feet are so often born with jaundice. Theo didn't see customers: She saw walking demonstrations of the sometimes scary effects drinking water - and the chemicals in it - can have on human health.


A lot of water has flowed through the North Fork Valley since then. In June, Theo, 74, who was last year's recipient of the $500,000 Blue Planet Award from Asahi Glass Foundation, came back to Paonia to give 10 local youngsters, ages 13-15, a brief course in how chemicals have wormed their way into our lives and health.


Accompanied by a 10-person Japanese television crew, the World Wildlife Fund senior scientist and her students planned to tour the nearby Black Canyon of the Gunnison, watch power lines snake up and out of that spectacular canyon, and then fly on to Lake Superior to interact with a team of scientists from Clemson University working with eagles.


It was an unlikely cast and an unlikely itinerary, all tied together by Theo, who in 1985, at age 58, received her Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She had gone back to school because she wanted to understand Western water quality and the effects on wildlife and humans of the once widely used family of chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.


The full story can be found in Our Stolen Future, a book she wrote with Dianne Dumanoski and J.P. Myers. Standing in the living room of the small house she owns in Paonia, Theo explained it briefly: PCBs are "endocrine disruptors - developmental intoxicants" whose effects can be seen most vividly in the deformed fish and birds of the Great Lakes region. Scientific studies indicate a broad range of effects on human beings, as well.


"We're moving into the third human generation exposed in the womb to these chemicals," which, Theo says, can cause childhood cancer, attention deficit disorder and lowered IQ. She also believes the chemicals are "neutering" the population, making men more feminine and women more masculine. The shortened urethras in some male humans - a birth defect known as hypospadias - is only the most obvious symptom.


Theo says the Japanese have been most taken by her ideas, buying 500,000 copies of Our Stolen Future since it was published in 1996. It's a highly industrialized and polluted nation, "and they like me because I keep calling for inner space science. The Japanese see the effects on their animals and, unlike us, they don't see themselves as separate from animals."


Hence the Blue Planet Award, and the Japanese TV crew, sent by Japan's public television station, NHK, to film her in its series titled "Superteachers: Wisdom for the Future." Earlier programs were about Nigerian writer and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, British zoologist Jane Goodall, and Icelandic pianist Vladimir Ashkenazi. Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival? A Scientific Detective Story is available in paperback for $13.95 at bookstores. © High Country News