Vision + Persistence = Theo Colborn, 1927-2014

Some years ago—it feels like another lifetime—I was shopping in the men’s section at JC Penney with my-then boyfriend. I was looking for a nice shirt for my brother and he was looking for slacks. It seemed as though every pair had a label stating it was “stain-resistant.”

At the time, I knew enough to know the slacks probably came equipped with Teflon, and I wondered, Who the heck would want that stuff next to their body—especially their privates—for most of any given day they wore them?

I advised him to steer clear.

That was around the time the Environmental Working Group had done some hair-sample studies around the “body burden” of chemicals, plus a study of pet birds exposed to heated nonstick pans (Teflon, again).

But it was before I’d heard of Theo Colborn.

I keep a picture of Theo Colborn on a vision board in my office. ColbornandCarsonVisionIt’s a color photo, probably taken within the last 10 years—showing her as president of TEDX—The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (not TEDx, though Colborn did one of those, too, and I urge you to watch it and, yes, send it along to the White House). On the board, she’s just to the right of another important lady—Rachel Carson. Together, they are under a pink heart, above which it says, Rejoice! and on which are the words, “For me, it’s about making a difference—every day.”

In the hustle-bustle of the holidays and our family’s grief and preparations for my sister’s memorial, I did not know until this past week that Theo Colborn had died in December—December 14. Her passing is a tremendous loss for an interdisciplinary range of sciences, policy, and communications that focuses on threats to all life by myriad chemicals that act at very low doses to disrupt hormonal signaling.

Per U.S. law (the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976), chemicals are tested at levels high enough to cause immediate harm even as the long-term and often-unseen effects of low levels go unexamined. As Colborn and coauthors Dianne Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers pointed out in Our Stolen Future, it takes very little of certain chemicals to act in utero and damage the ability of that future person to withstand illness, avoid obesity, and even to reproduce.Our_Stolen_Future

When I read anything, I read with an editor’s eyes. So, I was not quite sure what to do with a passage in Our Stolen Future in which the authors “trace” a PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) molecule from its origin in Texas, where it gets picked up as dust on the wind, to Canada, where it eventually finds its way into the body of a breastfeeding Inuit woman. The length of the passage annoyed me, but it’s one that has stuck with me, simply because of its ability to illustrate that once unleashed in the world, no one can be sure where toxics will end up—whether in the endocrine system of a just-differentiated male human fetus, the fat of a beluga whale, or manifesting as the un-parentlike behavior of a gull mother or father in the Great Lakes. One thing we can be sure of, based on research, is that these chemicals are often more harmful in their broken-down forms, which is what happens when they get metabolized by various forms of life and then bioaccumulate as they travel up the food chain.

I had a brief conversation with Colborn once when I was trying to track down Michael Gilbertson, who was included in Our Stolen Future for his research on endocrine disruptors (EDs) in those Great Lakes gulls. The research was for a nonprofit, though I don’t think they ever used the information, which is sad. They do videos and I imagine it’s hard to show EDs—which are not especially photogenic—in that medium. Still, I appreciated Colborn’s kind and prompt response to my request as well as her suggestions for other avenues to consider.

The information about endocrine disruptors is priceless for anyone who lives today and loves Earth and loves themselves, because exposures can mean the difference between wellness and suffering. It is probable that many of today’s childhood neurodevelopmental issues and childhood cancers as well as metabolic diseases, such as Type II diabetes in children and adults, are influenced by our exposures to endocrine disruptors, such as xenoestrogens and xenoandrogens that mimic and act as hormones in the body. And the earlier in fetal development these exposures take place, the worse the problems early on. (Knowing this makes it rather difficult to watch drug ads targeting men with “low T,” because I can’t help but wonder whether it’s xenoestrogens that have interfered with their ability and also because of all the warnings that accompany these underarm “solutions”…keep out of reach of children and women who could be pregnant. Yeah, I’m gonna want that in my house! NOT! And if you think I’m just picking on guys, don’t. Anything that acts as hormones and interferes with the hormonal signaling of any species deserves broad and deep scrutiny.)

But what does this knowledge yield? Especially when, when it comes down to it, we are truly “all in this together”?

We are connected by the water we drink and the air we breathe and the soils in which our food is grown. Even if the U.S. manufacturing base has imploded and moved overseas, many of the same chemicals (or worse) are used in countries where the laws are lax or nonexistent. Have no doubt: Their back yard is our back yard. And, as Colborn was exploring toward the end of her life, what time bombs are we setting off when we drill, baby, drill? Baby, indeed!

It’s easy to become a pessimist. Theo Colborn admitted she was. But hers is a good example, because she was a late bloomer of sorts, getting her doctorate in zoology at 58 (with minors in epidemiology, toxicology and water chemistry), and she never gave up. Despite our feelings of being troubled and saddened by the changes we see in the health of wildlife and the plants around us and by the humans in our midst, and even though we cannot return to a “cleaner” time, we can push Congress to update our laws.

We can forego clothes that resist things that normal clothes should not (stains, wrinkles). We can avoid using chemicals in our homes, including cleaners and fabric softeners and air fresheners. We don’t need to use harmful cosmetics on our skin or in our hair. (See the Breast Cancer Fund’s Tips for Prevention for more information.) We can ask questions, lots of them, and press people for answers. And we can, of course, pray.

Making such a shift is not easy. You can ask my beloved, who used to groan when I insisted that we needed to change the way we ate, clothed and housed ourselves, even though the ways I suggest are inconvenient. Convenience, in our “American way of life,” is a killer. Theo Colborn would probably agree.

When I heard of Colborn’s passing, I felt another wave of grief, not like what I felt around my sister, but as though someone familiar—some familiar spirit or fellow-traveler—had left us. What will all of her hard work amount to? What ripples will she continue to stimulate? What we will do to make good on all that she’s done?

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