Twenty-eight years ago, when she was fifty-eight, Theo Colborn left a career as a pharmacist to get her PhD, because she was concerned about water quality in the American West. Since then, Colborn has gone toe to toe with the world’s most powerful industries—chemical, petroleum, plastics, household products manufacturers—whose synthetic chemical cocktails wreak havoc on the human endocrine system. The result is an environmental debate routinely mentioned in the same breath as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
When I first talked with Colborn, in 1999, the story of endocrine disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, was considered fringe, her 1996 book, Our Stolen Future (co-authored with Dianne Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers), vilified and discounted. Today, at eighty-six, Colborn is no longer marginalized as a “bunny hugger” (her words) who asks too many questions, but hailed as a visionary, the recipient of such honors as the National Council on Science and the Environment Lifetime Achievement Award, The International Blue Planet Award, and four different Rachel Carson awards.
In October 2013, the organization Colborn founded, The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, celebrated its ten-year anniversary and announced Colborn had stepped down as president. In early winter, we talked and exchanged e-mails about her life and her groundbreaking work. —Catherine Buni
In 2003, you founded the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, near your home in Paonia, Colorado. When you consider TEDX’s trajectory, what’s most surprising to you?
Quite frankly, I thought TEDX was going to be a two-person team, with Lynn [Carroll, PhD, senior scientist] and me. I am very pleased. Like Goethe wrote, once committed, all good things will come your way. I did not anticipate the overwhelming encouragement from those who in the past supported my work, nor the number of academicians around the world who would continue to provide comfort and advice. TEDX now has a highly competent team of scientists providing technical information about materials and topics from fossil fuels to endocrine disruption.
The challenge of demonstrating the health impacts of EDCs is significant, the research complex. The rise of what’s popularly called fracking—a process where a million or more gallons of fluids containing toxic chemicals are injected underground—has provided a concrete story, one the mainstream media has embraced. Where is that story headed?
Your question provides an example of the misuse of the word fracking. You used it here to get the attention of the reader, but in essence fracking does not add to the identifiable health hazards posed to those working and living near oil and natural gas activity. Fracking represents only about forty-eight hours of the life of a natural gas well; health problems start long before the fracking process, after the drill bit hits the shale formation.
Methane related to fracking does not harm human health, but it is accompanied by hundreds of other toxic gases. Among them is a group called the aromatics, which are collected in condensate tanks at the wellhead for delivery to chemical and product manufacturing plants around the country. This particular class of chemicals provides the six-sided benzene ring used as the feedstock for all those twenty-first-century products that have made life easier and upon which society is now totally dependent. This is where the chemical industry is making a lot of money—these chemicals are used to make plastics, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, fire retardants, pesticides, baby and children’s toys, food storage containers, furniture and carpets, computers, phones, appliances, and lots more.
Only a pittance of the estimated 100,000 or more synthetic chemicals made from the aromatics have been thoroughly tested for their effects on the endocrine system. The government requires industry to test for cancer, but not for connection with increasing epidemics of endocrine system related disorders—Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, autism, intelligence and behavioral problems, diabetes, obesity, cancers in children and adults, abnormal genitalia, hypospadias, infertility, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s Diseases. These are costing families and governments a fortune, while also depriving us of our ability to function as individuals to our fullest potential.
More and more people are trying to do something to reduce their exposure to these chemicals. Lately, the media has been revealing the unpleasant truth about the lives destroyed in the gas fields, and the truth about the endocrine-system impacts from the end use of the aromatics.
But the Environmental Protection Agency is struggling. It got stuck in a rut, and needs help to get out. I sat on the EPA’s first EDSTAC (Endocrine Disruptor Screening and Testing Advisory Committee) in 1996. So far, the EPA has provided for review some protocols to detect chemicals that interfere with estrogenic, androgenic, and thyroid hormones—but the protocols still need approval.
How could this happen? Well, our government operates via the stakeholder approach, where those who are creating the problem are invited to solve the problem. A new approach is needed. Only people with no conflict of interest should participate in the decision-making. Concerned citizens can start by helping to elect those who will support them. And personally, they can turn to buying guides that are now available which name products containing EDCs, so they can purchase only what they need.
What inspired your turn to the study of synthetic chemicals and health?
When I was young, I was always asking questions, and no one ever had the answers for me. I remember sitting with my grandmother, beside a lilac bush in bloom, and looking up at the clouds. I was probably five years old.
“Why do we have clouds?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” my grandmother said. “I’ve wondered about that, too. There are a lot of things you can look into when you grow up.”
When I started high school in 1940, I broke the mold and signed up for the scientific courses that until that time were strictly for boys. Girls were supposed to take courses to become secretaries or teachers. But I only got As in music and science courses. After dinner in the evening, I spent hours practicing on the piano to get out of doing the dishes.
My father was a very successful cookie salesman during the Depression—he sold cookies by the carload to five-and-dime stores. During WWII, the cookie factory switched to making K-Ration biscuits for servicemen, and he ended up working in the factory paid by the hour. So there was no way I could go to college.
Serendipitously, my high-school counselor knew the registrar at Rutgers University College of Pharmacy, and insisted that I go visit her. I loved what I saw there, but I knew I couldn’t apply. So I started working as a lab technician the week after I graduated from high school. At the end of the second week, when I got home, my mother told me, “The College of Pharmacy just called, and you just got a full four-year scholarship from Vicks Chemical Company.” I continued to work part time in the lab while attending college.
Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder describes so well the innate curiosity I have always had about natural things. And I never trusted adults. I never believed in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy.
Among the many tributes on TEDX’s website, one, from a father, is particularly moving. “I have a little boy born with hypospadias and he had to go through a horrible surgery at only 6 months old,” he wrote. “My wife is pregnant right now… [I] have such fears… If there is any way to have foams, plastics, etc. tested for endocrine disrupting chemicals, please let me know. ” How does it feel to be sought out, in the words of Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, as the foremost expert in a challenge both so vast and so personal?
I was truly disturbed to hear these stories and feel helpless. The joy of having a new child should not be shadowed with fear. This reflects the state of our health care system, where each ailment is parsed out to specialists. Years ago, insurance companies knew that boys with hypospadias were going to have other serious problems as they matured, and they refused to insure them. A single-pay government health care program would have picked this up.
I also worry because our laws are not written to deal with endocrine disrupting chemicals—our laws to control toxic substances all need rewriting. But the idea of endocrine disruption has been accepted by many disciplinarians, on campuses here and abroad.
What are your plans now?
Whenever I can, I will help physicians, nurses, and other health professionals understand the insidious effects of natural gas extraction on communities and individuals. Health care professionals need to incorporate in their practice steps to determine if their patients’ chronic problems are related to things like natural gas extraction. I also want to stimulate interest in a nationwide, personal-backpack air-sampling program conducted by individuals living in gas patches, and make sure support for this kind of research becomes available.
But I intend to dedicate most of my time left to spreading the word that fossil fuels are not only linked to climate change, but also to the plethora of epidemics resulting from exposure to their end-use products—and the skyrocketing costs related to all this that are undermining the global economy and efforts to restore world peace.
Catherine Buni is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Atlantic online, The New York Times, and The Writer. In a December 2012 TED Talk, Dr. Theo Colborn read a powerful and moving letter to President Obama calling for better regulation of EDCs. Watch Colborn’s TED Talk here.