Theo Colborn: a pioneer in identifying the problems caused by endocrine disrupting chemicals

On International Women’s Day, ChemTrust wanted to highlight the work of one woman in particular who had a significant impact on the field of endocrine disrupting chemicals, Dr Theo Colborn (1927-2014)

A trained pharmacist, Theo Colborn had an interest in wildlife from an early age. After completing her Master’s degree in science in 1981, she was awarded a PhD in Zoology in 1985 at the age of 58. Colborn undertook research on contaminants in the Great Lakes on the Canada-US border, and it was this research that demonstrated how endocrine disrupting chemicals were entering the environment and altering the development of wildlife. She co-authored the book ‘Our Stolen Future’, and in 2003 founded The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) in the US, a non-profit organisation which aims to reduce the production and use of hormone disrupting chemicals.

ChemTrust sat down with co-founder of CHEM Trust, Elizabeth Salter Green, to talk about the impact that Theo had on the field. Elizabeth previously worked as Director of the WWF-UK Toxics Programme, and has also worked for WWF’s European Policy Office, and for WWF International. Prior to WWF she worked for several years as a marine biologist, and co-authored the book “The Toxic Consumer”.

When did you first hear about Theo’s work?

I first met her when she came to the UK for the launch of her book, ‘Our Stolen Future’ in 1996. I was lucky enough to work with her on European policy on endocrine disrupting chemicals. But I had heard of her before that, as I was working for WWF-UK in the marine programme, and she was working for WWF’s US office.

What contribution did Theo make to the field of endocrine-disrupting chemicals?

Theo Colborn figured out that chemicals could disrupt our development. She was working in the Great Lakes on the Canada-US border in the 80s and could see that the populations of top predators were decreasing. She worked out – of course with the help of colleagues – that once these persistent chemicals were in the mother’s bloodstream they could be passed across to the child, be it an egg or a foetus developing in-utero. She could see that these chemicals had the ability to look like hormones and that they were disrupting the offspring’s development before they were even born. They were causing fertility problems in mammals, raptors’ shells to be too thin, and that was why the populations of top predators were decreasing. In 1991, she brought together 21 scientists from across the world to discuss hormone disrupting chemicals in the environment.

 Were there others working on similar research at the same time?

There were other people looking at chemicals and their impacts on wildlife and humans, but they were not able to work out the mechanism of the chemicals as hormone disruptors. They didn’t use the term endocrine disruptor until Theo had, and then applied the term to their own work. She absolutely led the way.

 What was the impact of her work on future research into endocrine disruptors?

She, with that group of scientists, coined the term ‘endocrine disruptor’, and it was used in all the scientific literature. In 1996, she wrote ‘Our Stolen Future’, which explained how these chemicals could be bad for not only the wildlife that she had studied, but for humans too. I remember her coming to the UK for the book launch, and she and WWF got such bad press for scaremongering. But, by the early 2000s the EU was spending €200 million on endocrine disrupting chemicals research programmes. We had gone from being vilified in 1996, to be the cause of hundreds of millions of euros being spent on research because they knew that Theo’s work was right.

 Was there any impact on policy or chemical regulation?

When Theo came to the UK in 1996, she said these endocrine disrupting chemicals are a problem. So, WWF wrote to the European Commission and told them that they are overlooking this whole group of harmful chemicals in their chemicals legislation, but we were told that nothing was going to be done. So, with Theo’s help, we got an Own Initiative report written in the European Parliament. An Own Initiative report is used if an issue is felt to be really important, but you can’t get leverage with the Commission. In this case, we were fortunate that Kirsten Jensen from the Environment Committee took the leadership in drafting  an Own Initiative report on endocrine disrupting chemicals report in 1998.  Following this report, the Commission had to do something, and that was then when they started to produce a strategy on endocrine disrupting chemicals. It is thanks to Theo Colborn, WWF and the other NGOs, that endocrine disrupting chemicals were put  on the agenda and also into REACH, which is what we use today to regulate harmful chemicals.

 What impact has Theo’s work had globally?

When she brought these scientists together in 1991 they were from all around the world, so it was truly a global group, and so her message had a global reach. There was upset amongst chemical companies and documentaries made all around the world. While she had a global impact, the only part of the world that made formal legislation on endocrine disrupting chemicals was the EU.

 What influence has Theo’s work, or working alongside her, had on your own career?

She has definitely been the inspiration for my life’s work. I personally felt, the way that she did, that unless we get on top of these endocrine disrupting chemicals we were going to undermine the wellbeing of future generations. And then it was almost a perfect storm. Theo was undertaking the research in the US, I was in the UK and understood the science and policy, WWF was the world’s largest environmental organisation, and the European Union was producing environmental legislation to try and protect human health and the environment. We eventually got the EU to include endocrine disrupting properties as a criterion for managing chemicals. That is thanks to Theo, and that is all that my life’s work has been about.

 How is Theo an inspiration for others?

One of the things about Theo is that she was quite softly spoken, she didn’t have a massive ego, she just knew her science was right. She was a woman and most of her adversaries were men in grey suits working for big chemical companies, and she had an enormous adversary in that. I felt that it was one woman espousing the science, with the whole of the chemical industry wanting to shoot her down. But she would not be put off by others, she just kept going because she knew the science was right.

 Also, she had come to this quite late in life. It wasn’t until she was in her 50s, 60s, 70s, that she produced this new hypothesis of hormone disruptors. So, I suppose that says to me, you might have had a career, or children, and be wondering what you can achieve now. Well, Theo started her whole career on endocrine disrupting chemicals in her 50s, and look at the impact that her work has had.

Written by Eleanor Hawke on March 7, 2019.
Reference. Image credit wikimedia.

Twenty-Five Years of Endocrine Disruption Science: Remembering Theo Colborn

Abstract

For nearly 30 years, Dr. Theo Colborn (1927–2014) dedicated herself to studying the harmful effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on wildlife, humans, and the environment. More recently, she extended this effort to address the health impacts of unconventional oil and gas development. Colborn was a visionary leader who excelled at synthesizing scientific findings across disciplines. Using her unique insights and strong moral convictions, she changed the face of toxicological research, influenced chemical regulatory policy, and educated the public. In 2003, Colborn started a nonprofit organization—The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX). As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of endocrine disruption science, TEDX continues her legacy of analyzing the extensive body of environmental health research and developing unique educational resources to support public policy and education. Among other tools, TEDX currently uses the systematic review framework developed by the National Toxicology Program at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, to answer research questions of pressing concern. In this article, we pay homage to the tenacious woman and the exemplary contribution she made to the field of environmental health. Recommendations for the future of the field are drawn from her wisdom.

Endocrine disrupting chemicals and children’s health

Forget about global warming : this is the real threat…

Video published on 23 Feb 2012 by piscesgutt sin kanal channel.

From a Swedish documentary about the chemical cocktail that enters our body from food, drink and pollution.

More information

Hormonal Chaos

Scientific and Social Origins of the Environmental Endocrine Hypothesis

Hormonal-Chaos book cover image
A detailed description by a scientific and policy insider of an emerging theory and the response of the scientific and legislative communities.

The broader environmental endocrine hypothesis (EEH), is the subject of Hormonal Chaos, by Sheldon Krimsky, 2000. The premise behind the EEH is that chemicals mimicking endocrine hormones can bind to receptors and thus can cause health problems in humans as well as other animals. Krimsky shows how this hypothesis first developed within the scientific community, in large part as a result of the persistence and insight of Theo Colborn. While working for the nonprofit Conservation Foundation in the 1980s, Colborn formulated the EEH, linking together evidence from several disparate sources: deleterious effects on wildlife exposed to pesticides, defects in babies whose mothers took the estrogen substitute diethylstilbestrol (DES) and controversial claims that human sperm is declining in quantity and quality.

Sources and book reviews

  • Hormonal Chaos: The Scientific and Social Origin of the Environmental Endocrine Hypothesis, NCBI PMC1118410, British Medical Journal; 321(7259):516, BMJ 2000 Aug 19.
  • The Case of the Deformed Frogs, americanscientist, July-August 2000.
  • Amazon customer reviews.
On Flickr®
More DES DiEthylStilbestrol Resources

Theo Colborn, environmental health analyst, pioneer in EDCs research

A visionary who worked tirelessly to protect the public from chemicals with hormone disrupting properties

image of theo-colborn
Remembering the genius who got BPA out of your water bottles, and so much more.

Theo Colborn passed away yesterday, at the age of 87. She had immersed herself in decades of research and co-authored a popular science book about the health and environmental threats created by man-made chemical contaminants that interfere with hormones in humans and wildlife: Our Stolen Future.

Theo Colborn founded the Endocrine Disruption Exchange nonprofit, which, among other things, helped fund and cheerlead more research into endocrine disruptors and their causes.

Her key message is still incontestable: 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

Letter to the president about chemicals disrupting our bodies: Theo Colborn at TEDxMidAtlantic 2012

Dr. Theo Colborn, Founder and President of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), based in Paonia, Colorado, reads a letter she wrote to President Obama asking for better regulation of health disrupting chemicals.
Video published on 10 Dec 2012 by TEDx Talks.

Sources and more information
  • Remembering the genius who got BPA out of your water bottles, and so much more, grist, 16 Dec 2014.
  • Theo Colborn, A brief biography by Elizabeth Grossman.
  • In memory of Theo Colborn, chemtrust, DECEMBER 15, 2014.
  • Watch more BPA chemicals videos on our YouTube channel.

Our Stolen Future

A book by Dr. Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and Dr. John Peterson Myers

Our stolen Future, a Book on Flickr

DES was just one of many new synthetic chemicals that promised to give us control over the forces of nature…

A book by Dr. Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and Dr. John Peterson Myers

Read Our Stolen Future: Excerpts from Chapter 4, Hormone Havoc

DES books set on Flickr  DES Diethylstilbestrol's photostream on Flickr

More DES DiEthylStilbestrol Resources

Our stolen Future

The hardback edition, released March 1996

DES was just one of many new synthetic chemicals that promised to give us control over the forces of nature

Our Stolen Future
We should have known better!
You can’t mess with Mother Nature, and win …

A book by Dr. Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and Dr. John Peterson Myers

Read Our Stolen Future: Excerpts from Chapter 4, Hormone Havoc.

More DES DiEthylStilbestrol Resources

SlideShow DES Books

Not just public health books but real stories of a tragedy experienced by million of men and women…

DES Books

DES Voices

 

The FlickrDES Booksphoto set features front cover images of a selection of books and publications in English and French about the adverse effects of Diethylstilbestrol, the synthetic oestrogen prescribed to millions of pregnant women around the world decades ago in the mistaken belief that it would reduce the risk of complications during pregnancy.  Below is a short introduction presenting these books:

BOOKS AND PUBLICATIONS IN ENGLISH

books about diethylstilbestrol image

Toxic Bodies: Hormones Disruptors and the Legacy of DES – Author Nancy Langston, published in 2011

In this gripping exploration, Nancy Langston shows how these chemicals have penetrated into every aspect of our bodies and ecosystems, yet the U.S. government has largely failed to regulate them and has skillfully manipulated scientific uncertainty to delay regulation. Personally affected by endocrine disruptors, Langston argues that the FDA needs to institute proper regulation of these commonly produced synthetic chemicals.

AFSSAPS DES Report – Author French Agency for the Safety of Health Products (AFSSAPS), published in 2011

As a result of a survey conducted in 2010, AFSSAPS decided to publish a DES update aimed at DES exposed individuals and health professionals. The publication emphasizes the gynecologists and obstetricians’ crucial role in recognizing DES exposure, informing their patients about its consequences and referring them to specialists for adequate care and monitoring. It also highlights the crucial role of DES patients in handing down the “record” of their exposure to the next generations. The AFSSAPS report is available to download in English and French.

Origins, How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives – Author Annie Murphy, first published in 2010

The book’s most chilling section involves the tragic results of thalidomide and diethylstilbestrol (DES), two drugs from the 1950s that were “given to pregnant women in the belief that the fetus would be unaffected.” Ms. Paul reveals six decades later: “It is evidence of the evolving state of our knowledge that the mechanisms by which these substances do their damage are not completely clear, even now.”

DES Voices, From Anger to Action – Author Pat Val Cody, published in 2008.

“Take a new estrogen promoted by the pharmaceutical companies. Add doctors ready to believe in another miracle drug. Take post-World War II women desperate to have a baby after miscarrying. Continue prescription for years. The result is the tragedy experienced by million of DES-exposed mothers, daughters, and son – and perhaps grandchildren. This is the story of what they did about the drug disaster that changed their lives.”

DES Stories, Faces and Voices of People Exposed to Diethylstilbestrol – Author Margaret Lee Braun, Theo Colborn and Nancy M.Stuart, first published in 2001

A tribute to the millions of lives upended by exposure to DES, diethylstilbestrol, synthetic estrogen, toxic chemical, and carcinogenic prescription drug. In photographic portraits and interviews, DES daughters, mothers, and sons tell, in their own voice, what it’s like to be DES-exposed. Today the DES story continues to unfold as research brings new findings to light. DES Stories rings with daring honesty—and points to broader concerns about the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

To Do No Harm: DES and the Dilemmas of Modern Medicine – Authors Dr. Apfel and Dr. Fisher, first published in 1985

In this important book, Drs. Apfel and Fisher demonstrate how explosive technological advances, physicians’ unconscious fantasies of heroism, and the urging of patients, among other factors, combined to produce the DES disaster-a massive tragedy that could occur again in any area of medicine.

DES Diethylstilbestrol – New Perspectives – Author David A. Edelman, first published in 1986

“An important contribution to the understanding of the uses of DES by pregnant women and the risks associated with this use. It is the only book on this subject that provides a scientifically objective overview and should be read by all who are involved in the debate over the effects of in utero DES exposure, including those men and women who were unfortunately exposed to the drug” American Medical Writers Association, July 1987.

BOOKS AND PUBLICATIONS IN FRENCH

Distilbène: des Mots sur un Scandale – Auteurs Véronique Mahé, publié en 2011

On estime le nombre de victimes du DES à 360 000 en France. Préfacé par Marie Darrieussecq, marraine du Réseau D.E.S. France, ce livre donne la parole aux femmes et aux hommes – mères et pères, filles et fils, compagnons – qui vivent les douloureuses conséquences de ce scandale médical, pour faire entendre leur souffrance et leur colère

DES (Distilbène – Stilboestrol): Trois Générations Réalités Perspectives – Auteur Anne Levadou, publié en 2010

Book presented by the support group Réseau D.E.S. France presenting texts from speakers of the DES symposium organized in France in November 2010.

Moi, Stéphanie, fille Distilbène –  Auteur Stéphanie Chevallier, publié en 2010

Stéphanie Chevallier est présidente de l’association des “Filles DES”. Elle est aujourd’hui l’heureuse maman d’un petit garçon adopté au Vietnam et poursuit son combat au nom des victimes du Distilbène grâce à son important rayonnement médiatique (elle est apparue dans Libération, Le Monde, etc…). Ce livre est son histoire et son combat contre l’ignorance face au DES.

Le Distilbène Trente Ans Après – Auteur Bernard Blanc, publié en 2008

Cet ouvrage est le fruit de la collaboration de plusieurs experts reconnus pour leur compétence dans ce domaine. Il intéressera tous les gynécologues obstétriciens, les urologues, mais aussi les médecins de santé publique et les sages-femmes.

Saskia ou le deuil d’un bébé Distilbène – Auteur Anne-Marie Lof, publié en 2000

Ce livre est le récit poignant d’une mère qui, sans le savoir, attend un « bébé Distilbène », du nom de ce médicament que l’on a donné aux femmes contre les nausées. Or, les filles des mères « contaminées » ont une propension aux fausse-couches et à d’autres pathologies. A partir de ce drame, Anne-Françoise Lof écrit un récit poignant dont le point de départ est la « non-existence » de l’enfant qui n’étant pas né, ni déclaré civilement, est tout de même né, même s’il était mort, une vraie personne, avec un vrai deuil, un vrai enterrement, une vraie souffrance. Elle s’appelait Saskia.

More DES DiEthylStilbestrol Resources