An internationally-recognized research institute founded in Paonia and focused on chemical disruption of the system responsible for reproductive health announced in August that it will close.
The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, or TEDX, will cease operations on Nov. 30. The reason is a lack of funding, said Carol Kwiatkowski, executive director of TEDX since 2008. “Funding for environmental health is tough to find,” she said. “The few funders out there are turning their sights toward climate change.”
The TEDX website, and its library of databases, will remain online for three more years, said Kwiatkowski.
Theo Colborn founded TEDX. Her groundbreaking work in the science of endocrine disruption, and her related book on the subject, led to public awareness of the toxicity related to chemicals used in the oil and gas extraction industry and changes in federal policy. Colborn died in 2014 at the age of 87.
“She worked up to the last day,” said Kwiatkowski.
The organization had expected one major funding source to dry up in 2019, said Kwiatkowski. Two more funding sources announced they would do the same. “Between the three of them, that was 70% of our funding,” she said. TEDX looked for other funding sources, “But it was pretty clear there was not enough money.”
TEDX has an added challenge in that it is a science-based organization with no public funding or membership base, she said. The staff is too busy doing research to hold big fundraisers or campaigns. “We’re just about science.”
Considered the cornerstone of research in endocrine disruption, Colborn’s work identified links between animal and human health and chemical exposure from hydraulic fracturing — a method of extracting oil and gas using water, sand and a mix of chemicals to fracture rocks and release them. TEDX built its databases around them, said Kwiatkowski.
Colborn’s 1996 book “Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence and Survival?” co-written with Dianne Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers, focuses on the endocrine system and the effects that long-term exposure to minute amounts of chemicals like benzene and toluene used in hydraulic fracturing, and bisphenol A (BPA) found in plastics have on it. The book, and Colborn’s research, influenced government policy and guided Environmental Protection Agency research.
The endocrine system, said Kwiatkowski, includes “all the glands that create hormones.”
Including the thyroid and adrenal glands, pancreas, testicles in males and ovaries in females. It regulates metabolism, growth and development, reproduction, sleep and sexual function, among other things.
TEDX research shows that “the system can be disrupted from tiny doses of chemicals,” said Kwiatkowski. “It’s very subtle,” but results in a wide range of health problems. It also affects humans at the embryonic stage of development. “The first five weeks of a baby’s development can be severely disrupted” by exposure to these chemicals.
While EPA policy was based on chemicals at the parts per billion level, Colborn’s research considered chemicals in parts per trillion. “That is orders of magnitude difference than what had been studied before,” said Kwiatkowski. Her research also focused on compounded effects caused when chemicals are mixed together. It went beyond cancer to other issues and looked at health effects from small amounts over a long period of time and the “very subtle changes in the system” they create.
While in the U.S., scientists are still trying to convince the government it’s a serious problem, in Europe, “They’re making big changes” to address the problem, she said.
Colborn’s first career was as a pharmacist, said Kwiatkowski. She and her husband, also a pharmacist, moved to the Western Slope in 2002 and became sheep ranchers while continuing their pharmacy work. She returned to school to earn a master’s degree at Western State College (now Western Colorado State University) and a doctoral degree from the University of Wisconsin at age 58.
Colborn earned several fellowships and awards, including two honoring “Silent Spring” author and scientist, Rachel Carson.
Educated in endocrine disruption and mentored under Colborn, Kwiatkowski kept TEDX going after Colborn’s death, with the help of a small number of funders and a dedicated staff and board of directors.
Colborn “had the wisdom of years, but also the enthusiasm of a new college graduate,” said Kwiatkowski. “Her mind was fresh.” Soon after graduation Colborn worked on a U.S. joint commission with Canada to study the health of wildlife around the Great Lakes area after federal cleanup from decades of industrial pollution. Her discovery that the adult animals appeared healthy, but their offspring were not, led to her theory of endocrine disruption.
TEDX aired its final webinar on Oct. 23. The program celebrated 16 years of TEDX research and was viewed by scientists, policy makers and followers from around the globe.
“It’s a sad day for those of us that are tracking the health effects of oil and gas,” said Natasha Léger, interim executive director at Citizens for a Healthy Community. CHC was established to protect people and the environment from the harmful effects of large-scale oil and gas development.
Leger said that, like many organizations prioritizing the health of people and the environment, CHC has for many years relied on Colborn’s work. “The health arguments that we make really stem from her work.”
CHC partnered with TEDX on an air-monitoring study released in 2016. Rather than rely on monitors placed two miles from oil and gas activity, said Léger, people carried them on backpacks into the “breathing zones,” much closer to activity, where people and animals are likely to go.
Watching the webinar, said Léger, “was very sobering in terms of how one person with one thought about how to revolutionize the way we think about chemical interactions on our health.”
While it’s sad to see the organization close, “More concerning is the loss of funding in this field,” said Léger.
On the positive side, said Kwiatkowski, other organizations will be taking up the causes of Colborn and TEDX. The organization is in contact with other scientists and nonprofits interested in continuing to maintain its databases.
There’s a whole field of study related to Colborn’s work, she said. Despite funding issues, “The research will continue.”