Remembering the genius who got BPA out of your water bottles, and so much more

Heather Smith
December 16, 2014
It was the late 1970s and Theo Colborn was, like pretty much everyone else in the ’70s, getting divorced. She was in her 50s and already retired from a career as a pharmacist.
She’d moved to a hobby farm that was close to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado and volunteered as a field researcher, sampling water and insects for signs that they were picking up toxins released by mining operations in the area. When she thought about what she should do next with her life, the answer that came to her was “become an expert in water sampling techniques.”
So Colborn went back to school. In 1985, at 58, she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a Ph.D. in zoology and minors in epidemiology, toxicology, and water chemistry. “I wanted to get the education,” she said, in a 1988 Frontline interview, “so that I could maybe undo some of the things that my generation basically foisted on society.”
By the time Colborn died on Sunday, at the age of 87, she had immersed herself in decades of research — and inspired even more research — that sought to do just that. The many, many proposed BPA bans? Go back to the very beginning, and you’ll find Colborn. The concern over dwindling sperm counts? Same thing.
After she graduated, Colborn went to work in Washington, D.C., first as a Congressional Fellow and then as an analyst, researching industrial emissions and ozone for the Clean Air Act. When those projects ended, she was hired by two conservation organizations, the World Wildlife Fund and The Conservation Foundation, to put together an overview of Great Lakes water quality with another researcher, Richard Liroff. In the Frontline interview, she talked about what happened next:

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