by Elizabeth Grossman
Theo Colborn, 87, died on December 14, 2014.
Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, Theodora Emily Decker Colborn was a life-long bird-watcher who began her fascination with the natural world early. I spent several days interviewing her in December 2013 at her home in Paonia, Colorado. As we talked on a sub-zero morning, with huge icicles everywhere in deep frozen snow, she kept a close eye on the birds flitting across the backyard and fretted about making sure there was food for them, since everything was iced over.
Earning a degree from the Rutgers University College of Pharmacy in 1947, Colborn began her professional career as a lab technician and a pharmacist while continuing to pursue her beloved birding. In 1964 she and her husband relocated to western Colorado, where their children became active in the local 4H Club and wildlife exploration became part of their lives.
By the mid-1970s Colborn had begun doing field work at the nearby Rocky Mountain Biological Station, sampling water and insects for toxic elements released by mining activity. Completing a master’s degree in 1981 at Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado, Coborn was admitted to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Ph.D. program based on her research into the effects of cadmium and molybdenum on freshwater aquatic insects. In 1985, at age 58, Colborn won both a Ph.D. in zoology and a White House Office of Technology Assistance fellowship.
As the fellowship, Colborn was offered a job with the World Wildlife Fund and the Conservation Foundation, which had recently merged. There, Colborn in 1988 produced a report that brought together for the first time what was known about the effects of chemical pollutants on the health of Great Lakes wildlife and of these same contaminants on human health.
The documented effects included reproductive and immune system problems; behavioral, hormonal and metabolic changes; deformities and tumors; and for some species, population decline.
The term “endocrine disruptor” was not then in use but the health effects that Colborn outlined have since been identified as among those associated with exposure to what are now known as endocrine disrupting chemicals – substances that, because of their chemical composition and structure, can interfere with the hormones that regulate and maintain many of the body’s vital systems.
The effects of toxics had been studied for millennia but assumed throughout most of scientific history was that the severity of the health response would always increase as the dose or exposure increased.
The study of endocrine disruptors revealed that very low levels of exposure can produce profound and lasting health effects; that timing as well as size of dose can be key to determining health outcome; that an environmental chemical exposure can have multigenerational effects; and that severity of health effect may not increase with dose in a linear fashion.
Colborn’s 1988 paper and a series of follow-ups often produced in partnership with Richard Liroff described how, “most importantly, the individual animals suffering the most in wildlife populations are the young. Young birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles exhibit a suite of untoward health effects that eventually cause premature death or abnormal development.”
The animals’ problems began with maternal exposure to one or more toxicants and transfer of those toxicants to the egg or fetus. “In most cases,” wrote Colborn and research partner Richard Liroff, “the adult animals show no visible signs of ill health, except abnormal behavior.”
Colborn and Liroff called for resources to support research into chemicals contaminating the Great Lakes that were also being found in human blood, breast milk, and fat tissue and were linked to “changes in body functions, such as the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems.”
“We knew enough then to do something,” said Colborn in December 2013.
Becoming a senior fellow at the W. Alton Jones Foundation in 1990, Colborn was instrumental in the convening the series of scientific meetings held in Racine, Wisconsin that produced the 1991 Wingspread Consensus Statement which for the first time, clearly characterized the concept of endocrine disrupting chemicals. In 1996 Colborn, John Peterson Myers, and Dianne Dumanoski co-authored Our Stolen Future, dramatically presenting the science of endocrine disruption and explaining how the U.S. allowed tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals into commercial use without fully understanding their biological effects.
Our Stolen Future includes a foreword by then U.S. vice President Al Gore. Said Gore, “Last year I wrote a foreword to the thirtieth anniversary edition of Rachel Carson’s classic work, Silent Spring. Little did I realize that I would so soon be writing a foreword to a book that is in many ways its sequel.”
Frustrated by the slow pace of regulatory progress in response to increasing scientific recognition of the effects of endocrine disruptors, Colborn in 2003 founded The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), a nonprofit research organization devoted to “prevention driven” endocrine disruptor research. TEDX is now headed by executive director Carol Kwiatkowski, but Colborn remained involved as director emeritus to the end of her life.
(Elizabeth Grossman’s full biography of Theo Colborn may be accessed at http://endocrinedisruption.org/assets/media/documents/Colborn%20bio%20short%20version.pdf.)