Remembering the genius who got BPA out of your water bottles, and so much more — Grist

From Grist (Heather Smith):

It was the late 1970s and Theo Colborn was, like pretty much everyone else in the ’70s, getting divorced. She was in her 50s and already retired from a career as a pharmacist.

She’d moved to a hobby farm that was close to the Rocky Mountain Biological Station in Colorado and volunteered as a field researcher, sampling water and insects for signs that they were picking up toxics released by mining operations in the area. When she thought about what she should do next with her life, the answer that came to her was “become an expert in water sampling techniques.”

So Colborn went back to school. In 1985, at 58, she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a Ph.D. in zoology and minors in epidemiology, toxicology, and water chemistry. “I wanted to get the education,” she said, in a 1988 Frontline interview,”so that I could maybe undo some of the things that my generation basically foisted on society.”

By the time Colborn died yesterday, at the age of 87, she had immersed herself in decades of research — and inspired even more research — that sought to do just that. The many, many proposed BPA bans? Go back to the very beginning, and you’ll find Colborn. The concern over dwindling sperm counts? Same thing…

What Colborn was seeing was the result of a wide variety of synthetic chemicals that had come into being in the 1950s and ’60s. Even though they were present in the water at very low concentrations, they were subtly changing how the animals in that system developed — how their genes were programmed, how their cells differentiated and spread out through their bodies, and, ultimately, how they were able to survive and reproduce into the next generation. The healthy wildlife around the Great Lakes, often, were those animals that had grown up elsewhere and migrated as adults. When their offspring failed to reach adulthood, or couldn’t reproduce, they were replaced by a fresh fleet of new arrivals. The lakes looked healthy, in other words, but they were a death trap.

Colborn credited this breakthrough, in part, to her unconventional scientific background.

I looked at it from an entirely different perspective. I looked at endocrinology differently. I began to look at toxicology. I was not trained in toxicology. I was trained in pharmacology until I went back to college to get my Ph.D. in my old age. Only then did I begin to sit in on toxicology courses.

There is a reductionism in scientists, in the scientific community. I have never been a reductionist. I am always thinking about the big picture. My thesis committee for my Ph.D. will tell you that. They had trouble with me.

At the time, Colborn said, scientists working on environmental issues had primarily been looking for cancer, which she described as “the big bugaboo.” Cancer was a rare event: In order to emerge, it had to circumvent the body’s defenses, and in a polluted community, not everyone would come down with it. What Colborn found was different: To a developing organism, even an infinitesimally small exposure could alter fetal development and the possible effects — lower IQ, organ damage, trouble reproducing — could be spread out across a community like jam on toast. The concept was so new there wasn’t even a term for it. In 1991, Colborn and a team of 21 international scientists working on the issue came up with one: endocrine disruption.

Unlike a lot of scientists, Colborn was not shy about becoming a public figure. She co-authored a popular science book with the dramatic title of Our Stolen Future. She founded a nonprofit called the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, which, among other things, helped fund and cheerlead more research into endocrine disruption and its causes.

Colborn continued to do solid research and she also went pretty far out on quite a few limbs, blaming chemicals derived from fossil fuels for everything from Parkinsons to Alzheimers to obesity to autism spectrum disorder. “Governments must take heed immediately,” she wrote, earlier this year, “or there will be too few healthy, intelligent individuals left to preserve our humanitarian society and create some semblance of world peace.” (As if we don’t have a pretty significant historical record showing that humans were more than eager to be complete jerks to each other long before anyone started messing with the benzene ring.)

Still, her big message was incontestable — that over 60 years ago, we began to introduce all of these chemicals into the environment, and we still have no idea what most of them do to us. In raising these questions, Colburn got us closer to looking for answers.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

A Paonia scientist who earned international recognition for bringing attention to the impacts of endocrine-disrupting chemicals to humans and wildlife has died.

Theo Colborn, 87, founded The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, based in Paonia, and in recent years focused her attention on possible health impacts of chemicals related to oil and gas development.

She died this week at home, surrounded by her family, according to a statement issued by TEDX’s executive director, Carol Kwiatkowski.

“As with all great leaders, Theo’s inspiration lives on — in her published works, in the scientists she mentored and the activists she inspired, in the people she helped in so many ways, and in the love of her friends and family,” Kwiatkowski said.

TEDX focuses on possible health and environmental harms of chemicals that interfere with hormones important in the development of people and wildlife.

Colborn co-authored a 1996 book on the subject, “Our Stolen Future,” which drew comparisons to Rachel Carson’s landmark 1962 environmental book, “Silent Spring.”

In 2002, Colborn began living full-time in the home she owns in Paonia. She became interested in possible impacts of hydraulic fracturing and other drilling-related fluids on groundwater after an energy company began talking about drilling on nearby Grand Mesa.

She became involved in efforts including creating a spreadsheet of chemicals used in drilling and their potential ill effects.

In 2008, she received the Göteborg Award for Sustainable Development, which is given by the city of Göteborg, Sweden, and several companies. She and three fellow recipients all were honored for their roles in examining negative health and environmental effects of chemicals. Past recipients had included Al Gore, and the engineers behind Toyota’s Prius hybrid vehicle.

According to a statement on TEDX’s website, until the day she died Colborn continued to work on a statement, “The Fossil Fuel Connection,” weaving together some of her concerns. It concludes, “Governments must take heed immediately or there will be too few healthy, intelligent individuals left to preserve our humanitarian society and create some semblance of world peace.”

Kwiatkowski said, “Theo’s immense courage was both intimidating and inspiring. Against all odds, she succeeded in getting the world to pay attention to an invisible threat. Yet there is much work still to be done.

“As TEDX’s executive director for the past six years I can assure you that we will continue with the same fierce commitment to ensuring that the science of endocrine disruption drives better laws to protect the health of all people.”

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