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Republican environmental critic blocks honors for Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring
Michael Roston
Published: Tuesday May 22, 2007
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Note: Correction appended.

A Republican Senator known for his criticism of various environmental causes is single-handedly holding up two bills in the US Senate that would honor the life of Rachel Carson, author of the well-known book Silent Spring, RAW STORY has learned. The bills were introduced by a bipartisan group of Senators from Carson's home-states of Pennsylvania and Maryland on the occasion of the centennial of her birthday on May 27.

"This week, Dr. Coburn blocked two bills intended to honor Rachel Carson on the 100th anniversary of her birth (one bill to name a post office after her in PA, and a resolution honoring her)," said a press release at Senator Tom Coburn's (R-OK) website.

Coburn said through a spokesman that Carson was undeserving of honor from Congress because she had promoted 'junk science.'

"Dr. Coburn believes the tremendous harm Carsonís junk science claims about DDT did to the developing world overshadow her other contributions," said spokesman John Hart in an e-mail to RAW STORY. "Millions of people in the developing world, particularly children under five, died because governments bought into Carsonís junk science claims about DDT. To put it in language the Left understands, her 'intelligence' was wrong and it had deadly consequences."

One of the resolutions Coburn is blocking with a parliamentary 'hold' seeks to mark the 100th birthday of Carson, who died in 1964.

"Congress honors the life of Rachel Carson, a scientist, writer, and pioneer in the environmental movement, on the occasion of the centennial of her birth," reads the resolution, which was introduced by Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland where Carson spent much of her life, and also co-sponsored by Senator Barbara Mikulski. Senators Arlen Specter, a Republican, and Democrat Bob Casey, from Pennsylvania where Carson was born, were also co-sponsors, as well as Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee.

Their resolution recognizes Silent Spring for detailing "how synthetic chemicals accumulate in water, soils, fish, and animals, including birds," and for pushing President John F. Kennedy to convene a scientific panel whose findings led "to the domestic ban of the sale of the chemical [DDT] in 1972, an action that many credit with saving the bald eagle from extinction."

The resolution also notes that Carson's book "is credited with helping to launch the modern environmental movement."

Coburn's action is part of an ongoing scientific and public health controversy over the use of the pesticide DDT, which the World Health Organization recently approved for limited use in order to prevent the spread of malaria in developing countries.

"This book was the catalyst in the deadly worldwide stigmatization against insecticides, especially DDT," said Senator Coburn at his website. "The U.S. and western European countries all used DDT in the mid-20th century to eliminate malaria from their territories, but then banned the substance for use by poor countries today to combat their number one health threat."

Dr. Diana Post, President of the Rachel Carson Council, was critical of Coburn's message that there was no reason to celebrate Carson's life.

"It's very important today that she linked human health and the impacts of pesticides on wildlife and plants and we know that today," Dr. Post explained.

She added, "Rachel also pointed out to us that all of those aspects of the environment are important, and that we need to have better a relationship with the environment."

Another researcher also explained to RAW STORY that Carson's scientific insights made her life deserving of celebration.

"She had important insights about the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to environmental health, and she was one of the first to point to the importance of linking the effect of pesticides on wildlife with human health and I think that's a very key insight that is important today in the study of endocrine disrupting compounds," argued Dr. Julie Brody, who directs the Silent Spring Institute, a non-profit group that identifies links between the environment and women's health, especially breast cancer.

Even some critics of Carson's work recognized that her book had beneficial results.

Ronald Bailey, the science correspondent for the libertarian magazine Reason, has been critical of the quality of Carson's scientific research and favors the limited use of DDT for anti-malaria purposes. He told RAW STORY in a phone interview Tuesday that there had nevertheless been some positive benefits from Silent Spring.

"To a certain extent, she launched a movement based on bad science that nevertheless had good results," Bailey argued, explaining that Carson had essentially become a 'myth.'

"Let's face it, Americans needed to be alerted to problems of pollution, and there's value in that," he added.

Dr. Post from the Rachel Carson Council also suggested that Carson effectively saved the chemicals industry from itself.

"Many people, people who were not even anti-pesticide, said that what Rachel Carson did probably saved the pesticide industry from further radical complaints or actions against it, because if things had been allowed to go on as they were, there would have been real trouble in the future," she explained

But Senator Coburn's spokesman was adamant that he'd maintain his parliamentary hold, which will prevent the casting of votes in favor of the resolution.

"[Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid could easily break this hold with procedural votes. The sponsors should ask Senator Reid why he wonít put it on the floor if this is a vital effort," Hart wrote in his e-mailed response to RAW STORY's questions.

Correction: RAW STORY mistakenly identified Senator Coburn as squaring off with former Vice President Al Gore on the science behind the cause of climate change, confusing him with his Oklahoma colleague Senator James Inhofe. RAW STORY regrets the error.