Remembering an environmental science pioneer

Theo Colborn uncovered effects of chemicals, like those used in fracking, on the human body.

 

In March 2004, I found myself filing papers in the quiet home of Theo Colborn, the internationally prominent environmental scientist who, for decades, lived on and off in tiny Paonia, Colorado, also High Country News’ hometown. An island of file cabinets stood in the middle of Theo’s kitchen and, during the following months, I sorted through stacks of research articles and newspaper clips. Each one documented a report or study on endocrine disruption, linking the exposure to chemicals in the environment and consumer products to unnerving changes to the hormones, health and development of people and animals.

One afternoon, Theo opened a drawer to find a report and instead discovered a folder of poetry. "Oh! You need to have this," she said and pulled out a photocopy of a poem, attributed to Goethe, which includes the lines: "…the moment one definitely commits oneself/ then Providence moves too./ ... Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it./ Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it."

Environmental scientist Theo Colborn recently died at the age of 87.

Theo, who died December 14 at age 87, lived a life rooted in commitment and boldness. After years as a small-town pharmacist and sheep farmer in western Colorado while raising her four children, she went through a divorce and decided to study watershed science and the environment. She earned her Ph.D at age 58, an unlikely third act in life. 

“So many people – sometimes much younger – were in awe of what she accomplished and to realize that she began that work at the age of 58 is so inspiring,” says Carol Kwiatkowski, executive director of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, the nonprofit research clearinghouse that grew out of Theo’s kitchen repository.

Theo’s Great Lakes doctoral research found manmade chemicals accumulating in female birds, fish and wildlife and, alarmingly, being passed along to their offspring and impacting early development. The findings introduced scientists and policymakers to the uncomfortable consequences of endocrine disruption.

She went on to work as a Congressional research fellow and then a scientist for World Wildlife Fund in D.C., and helped organize the first gathering of researchers studying endocrine-disrupting chemicals in 1991.

Her 1996 book, Our Stolen Future, coauthored with J. Pete Myers and journalist Dianne Dumanoski, told the story of how low-level yet chronic exposure to chemical compounds used as flame retardants, pharmaceuticals, softeners, and fragrances are stunting people’s development and fertility and increasing the probabilities of cognitive and behavioral disorders, developmental delays, thyroid problems and obesity, and cancers. In his foreword, Al Gore called the book a sequel to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and it’s no exaggeration to say Theo’s efforts triggered new laws and research around the world. The fact that people know what bisphenol-A is – and that many companies have removed the compound from water bottles and baby products – is part of her legacy.

The first time we met, Theo shared the bad news that I likely had lower sperm counts than men a generation ago due to the chemical burden accumulating in my body, saying, “You’re half the man your father is.” She warned everyone against microwaving plastics, because that increased the leaching of chemicals into foods and people’s bodies. While government research and regulations never lived up to her concerns, she never stopped advocating for greater oversight toward endocrine disruption. In 2012, Theo shared those concerns at a TEDx gathering, in the form of an open letter to President Obama.

Even as she got older, her memory remained razor sharp, and despite serving as a constant messenger of discomfiting news, she also maintained a delightful and animated demeanor. “She was twice the age of anybody who worked here, and we all had a hard time keeping up with her,” Kwiatkowski says.

Theo’s influence is far-flung. Remembrances shared by colleagues and friends speak to the energy and warmth that drove her work and also made her a superb science communicator. Young scientists and reporters grasped and explored the looming environmental health crisis thanks to her. Often reluctant to be quoted, she would instead direct reporters to researchers in the labs and field and to people suffering health ailments on the ground. In the last decade, Theo honed her attention on the human health effects of the oil and gas boom and the use of fracking chemicals in western Colorado and beyond.

“She was a visionary – she jumped on the whole natural gas and fracking issues before anyone was thinking about them,” Kwiatkowski says. “Her drive and tireless energy, her passion and commitment to uncovering the truth and sharing that information were really some of her defining features.”

That Goethe poem is taped to a wall at The Endocrine Disruption Exchange’s office, Kwiatkowski told me. It’s been taped to my office wall ever since, too. 

Joshua Zaffos is an HCN contributing editor. He tweets @jzaffos.

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