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

This International Women’s Day, we want 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, 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.

We 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 act 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. They adopted the Wingspread Statement which became a landmark and a crucial reference ever since.

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

There were many brilliant scientists looking at chemicals and their impacts on wildlife and humans, but they hadn’t yet worked 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, up to the present the EU has spent over € 150 million on endocrine disrupting chemicals research programmes, with another 50 million now granted under Horizon 2020. 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. However,  the EU Parliament listened to the scientific concerns and started an Own Initiative report. 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 the report on endocrine disrupting chemicals 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. As a result, the EU Community Strategy on endocrine disrupters was adopted in 1999. 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. 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.