Theo Colborn: Making Her Own Scientific Path

Theo Colborn: Making Her Own Scientific Path

by Cindy Cooper

June 6, 2011

Dr. Theo Colborn is often compared to Rachel Carson, whose famous book, Silent Spring will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. Colborn, a dedicated environmental researcher, heartily tosses off the association, even as her own scientific insights gain public attention and acknowledgement.

Carson, of course, kicked off the environmental movement with her 1962 book about harms caused by the chemical DDT. But Carson died from breast cancer two years later, only 47 years old at the time.

Colborn, on the other hand, was 58 years old when she earned a Ph.D. in zoology in 1985 after previous careers as a pharmacist and sheeprancher. A mother of four and grandmother, she went to work for the World Wildlife Fund, where she began to research alterations to the reproductive systems of the offspring of wildlife from small amounts of contaminants — chemicals that included DDT, but also others of the 80,000 synthetic chemicals, including atrazine, dieldrin, heptachlor, dioxin, polychlorinated biphenyls, bisphenol A and phthalates. Some of these chemicals are used widely in plastics and household products. Colborn reasoned that if synthetic chemicals made their way to the womb, they could disrupt proper human development of offspring. She called them “endocrine disrupters” because they interfered with the normal processes of embryonic and infant hormonal growth, causing damage to new generations.

In 1996, she published a book, Our Stolen Future: How We Are Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence and Survival, co-authored with science writer Dianne Dumanoski and environmental scientist John Peterson Myers. “The possible consequences of widespread hormone disruption are immense and irreversible,” they wrote.

As a pharmacist, Colborn was already aware of the potential for harm from endocrine disruption, an understanding that came from the medication DES, which was given to pregnant women in the 1960s to prevent miscarriages. The synthetic chemical compounds in DES had hormone-disrupting properties that affected the developing fetus. Children born to women who took the drug suffered reproductive harms — daughters were unable to bear children, and sons suffered genital damage, as well. In an interview in 2003, Colborn reflected on the DES connections. “There are a lot of chemicals out there like DES that can get into the womb and change how the cells have to split or move about and interfere with the basic constructions of the body. These are more subtle effects than what are commonly thought of as birth defects,” she said.

In the last 15 years, the truth of Colborn’s analysis has been verified by — literally — tens of thousands of studies, and endocrine disruption has moved to the mainstream. A website, Our Stolen Future, tracks studies, legislation and commentary on endocrine disrupters.

But — back to Rachel Carson. Colborn has won the Rachel Carson Award from the
Center for Science in the Public Interest
, and the Chatham College Rachel Carson Award and the Environmental Chemistry Rachel Carson Award. She has other awards, too, including being named an environmental hero by Time Magazine in 2007.

But people can’t stop mentioning Carson. An interviewer on “Frontline” in 1998 asked, “What about the parallels between you and Rachel Carson? She writes a book. She is vilified. You write a book. You are vilified.” Colborn replied: “I don’t compare myself with her at all. She was a beautiful writer …. She certainly was a pioneer. No, I think she stands alone.”

And so does Colborn. Now in her 80s, she serves as executive director of the Colorado-based Endocrine Disruption Exchange, or TEDX, which she founded. Most recently, she has taken to the airwaves to speak out about the health effects from chemicals used in hydraulic fracking for natural gas in Colorado and elsewhere, appearing on Democracy Now! in 2010 and in a DVD and YouTube video version in 2011.

Her message is essentially the same. As Colborn told her “Frontline” interviewer in 1998: “All I have ever done is said it like it is. The important thing is to tell the truth from the evidence that you have.”

Cindy Cooper is a writer in New York City.

Also see “A Tale of Two Nursing Mothers” by Chanda Chevannes in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.