Still in the fray

May 27, 2007

No one would be less surprised than Rachel Carson to discover that on today's 100th anniversary of her birth she is still stirring controversy.

Her 1962 book Silent Spring, which awakened the nation to the dangers of indiscriminate use of pesticides, brought swift retaliation from the chemical industry, including legal threats and personal demonization. Efforts to discredit her rage on.

Inadvertently, though, the Oklahoma senator who blocked a proposal by Maryland lawmakers to formally honor Ms. Carson today has simply called greater attention to her role in helping Americans understand how human activity affects their surroundings.

A Johns Hopkins-trained scientist who spent most of her career working for the federal government and lived in Silver Spring, Ms. Carson was an early skeptic of DDT and other pesticides that were so effective in eradicating disease-bearing insects that they were widely sprayed with no thought of adverse effects.

Her four years of research produced an alarming account of how pesticides entered the food chain and accumulated in the fatty tissues of animals, including humans, potentially causing cancer and genetic damage.

Ms. Carson died of breast cancer two years after Silent Spring was published, but her work sparked a movement that led to creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972 and a national ban on DDT.

Sen. Tom Coburn, a medical doctor, complains that Ms. Carson's "junk science" is responsible for stigmatizing DDT throughout the world even though it is the cheapest and most effective way to fight malaria. In 2000, the World Health Organization approved DDT to fight malaria in small, enclosed areas. But Mr. Coburn contends millions of people died needlessly in the meantime.

In the United States, though, birds nearly wiped out when DDT weakened their eggshells, including bald eagles and ospreys, have resurged. How many people may have escaped grave illness is unknowable.

Science is not an absolute. It's a learning process that involves asking questions, challenging assumptions and not fearing the consequences. Ms. Carson provided a role model for such a scientific process, and the uncompromising Mr. Coburn is as much in her debt as anyone.

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