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Remembering Theo Colborn: The Rachel Carson of My Generation

Thursday, December 18, 2014

One day in 1987 a pink message slip showed up on my desk at The Conservation Foundation urgently requesting a meeting with a new scientist on the staff named Theo Colborn. The topic of the meeting?

Endocrine disruptors.

Just what I needed. I was the organization’s press director at the time, and part of my job was to help our scientists make their important, but often very technical and obscure work, sing siren songs to reporters (that was back when there still were reporters – lots of them).

“Endocrine disruptors” certainly qualified as obscure. Might it even border on fringe? I couldn’t help but wonder.

It hardly mattered. It was my duty to meet with this guy and see what I could do for him.

Well, the topic was anything but fringe. And Theo wasn’t a guy.

The graceful, beautiful, wiry and intense woman who sat down in my office with a folder full of papers didn’t really need much help from me. Theo had already gotten some pretty solid coverage of this endocrine disruptor business (she brought the news clips), and I could see why. She precisely and compellingly explained her evidence, insights and hypotheses surrounding the role of certain chemicals in altering sexual development and, quite probably, disrupting hormone systems in ways that caused other chronic health problems. Whenever she raced ahead with her story and sensed I was lost, Theo would circle back and spoon-feed a bit more science and explanation; then it was off to the races again.

Eventually it dawned on me that Theo wasn’t meeting with me to help her get into the newspapers. She was there to recruit me to her cause.

That was Theo. She recruited a generation of environmental advocates, and I was just another one of her countless lifers. Every call, every meeting with her thereafter over the decades was a recruitment. It was a frickin’ blast.

All Theo really needed was a revolutionary rethinking across the entire field of toxicology, one that would marshal a small army of scientists. Then she needed to build an advocacy movement that would turn the emerging science into a force for change in the private sector and in government policy.

How hard could that be? She set about doing all of it, and more.

By sheer coincidence, around that same time I met the renowned environmental journalist Dianne Dumanoski, then with The Boston Globe, and an extraordinary environmental scientist named John Peterson (Pete) Myers. A decade later the three of them collaborated on the landmark book, “Our Stolen Future,” that engagingly tells the story of Theo’s discoveries and their implications for our health and the health of the planet. (My friend and colleague, the late environmental advocacy genius Phil Clapp, along with public relations legends Arlie Schardt and David Fenton, helped launch the book. It carried a foreword by then-Vice President Al Gore, no less. We had a momentary panic, and then a good laugh, when the books arrived the night before our packed Washington, D.C. press conference in boxes mislabeled “Our Stolen Furniture.” Maybe we would take the chemical industry by surprise after all!)

By then Theo’s work was already being translated into policy initiatives, and her large and grateful following in the environmental community was putting her insights to use in all manner of campaigns and initiatives, at home and abroad.  Industry hacks relentlessly attacked Theo and her science, to little avail. Theo’s devotees followed her ever after into pesticides, perfluorinated chemicals, fracking fluids and all manner of other important environmental debates that were powerfully shaped by her intellect, rock solid science and deep commitment to a healthy future.

Theo held companies and government accountable – but she held the environmental community accountable, too. She insisted on rigor, commitment; she insisted that we stand strong, as she did, in the face of industry bullies, regulatory weaklings and political sellouts. She brought issue after issue our way at EWG. When Theo called with a hunch or a trail of evidence, and she often did, we didn’t hesitate to launch our own inquiries. Invariably she was on to something that we needed to know about – and we’d set to work. Today you see references to Theo, and the influence of her work, throughout EWG’s portfolio, from the inception of the organization in 1993 straight through to today. Her insights are reflected in everything from our online rating systems for personal care products, cleaners and food to our work on fracking chemicals, BPA, flame retardants, phthalates, toxic chemical reform, on and on.

Theo was an inspiration to her fellow scientists, too. She attracted those who already possessed the commitment to propel their scientific insights into the policy process. And she drew out scientists who might have been reluctant to get near the heat of a debate with chemical companies until Theo’s intellect and personal courage convinced them to step up. She gathered all of them for critically important meetings and scientific proclamations that almost certainly would not have happened without her (including this one). Theo’s steadfast ally, collaborator and defender throughout many of these endeavors was Pete Myers, who is for so many of us now the leader of the movement Theo’s life and work inspired.

Theo was the Rachel Carson of my generation of environmentalists who work on toxic chemicals, pollution and health. She inspired hard work, inventive investigation and courage across the entire environmental movement. As if to impart a final lesson, to the very end of her days she was sharp, engaged, networking as ever and deeply in the fray. Hell, she was still starting frays even as her health failed.

I am so deeply sorry that the end has come. Theo changed the course of environmentalism, not just in America but around the world. She inspired so many of us to do the work we’ve been doing for 25 years.

Just thinking about the twinkle in her eye, the mischievous smile as she invited you into her next environmental adventure, as she did in my office almost 30 years ago, makes me wonder: What exactly is it that I’m doing today, right now, to make a difference? Because for all the mysteries Theo uncovered, for all that she taught us, one conclusion stands out above all.

Time is running out.

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