By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn has effectively blocked a resolution to honor environmental author Rachel Carson on the 100th anniversary of her birth, saying that her warnings about environmental damage have put a stigma on potentially lifesaving pesticides, congressional staffers said yesterday.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) had intended to submit a resolution celebrating Carson, author of the 1962 book "Silent Spring," for her "legacy of scientific rigor coupled with poetic sensibility." Carson, a longtime resident of Silver Spring who died in 1964, would have turned 100 this Sunday.
But Cardin has delayed the legislation, a spokeswoman said, because Coburn (R) has signaled that he will use Senate rules to halt it.
"We have not submitted the resolution yet because we understand that Senator Coburn has said he will block it," said Susan Sullam, a spokeswoman for Cardin. She said Cardin is considering whether to submit the bill later this week.
In a statement on his Web site yesterday, Coburn (R) confirmed that he is holding up the bill. In the statement, he blames Carson for using "junk science" to turn public opinion against chemicals, including DDT, that could prevent the spread of insect-borne diseases such as malaria, which is spread by mosquitoes.
Coburn, whose Web site says he is a doctor specializing in family medicine, obstetrics and allergies, said in the statement that 1 million to 2 million people die of malaria every year.
"Carson was the author of the now-debunked 'The Silent Spring,' " Coburn's statement reads. "This book was the catalyst in the deadly worldwide stigmatization against insecticides, especially DDT."
The controversy over Cardin's resolution -- which Sullam said was to be co-sponsored by Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) -- is the second spat over Carson's legacy on Capitol Hill this year.
In late April, a House bill that would name a post office after Carson in her home town of Springdale, Pa., received 53 "nay" votes. In news reports, some of those voting against the measure cited similar concerns about Carson's impact on the decline of DDT use.
Yesterday, Coburn said on his Web site that he is also blocking that bill, which was referred to the Senate after the House passed it. He did not give details. Under Senate rules, any senator may hold up legislation that is scheduled as a "unanimous consent" measure for quicker-than-usual passage.
Carson's book, which begins with a scene of a town in which all of nature is silenced by pollution, examines the effects that industrial-age chemicals were having on human and animal health. She focuses particularly on the effects that DDT, a pesticide used to kill mosquitoes and other insects, appeared to be having on the reproduction of birds.
Her book is credited with inspiring the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and the banning of most uses of DDT in the United States in 1972. Since her death from cancer, she has come to be celebrated as a hero by the environmental movement and as the inspiration for the modern, aggressive strain of advocacy for nature.
At the same time, however, some experts have criticized her for being too alarmist about DDT and inspiring officials to ban a chemical that could save lives.
Linda Lear, a George Washington University research professor who wrote a biography of Carson, said that Carson did not call for a total halt to the use of DDT but urged that it not be widely sprayed in places where the damage could outweigh the benefits.
"Carson was never against the use of DDT," Lear said. "She was against the misuse of DDT."
Roger Bate, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said yesterday that he understands the point Coburn is trying to make -- that the conventional wisdom about DDT needs to be reexamined. But he said it is difficult to lay all the blame on Carson, since she died so soon after her book was published.
"A lot of people have used Carson to push their own agendas," Bate said. "We just have to be a little careful when you're talking about someone who died in 1964."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.