Several outbursts of insanity in Washington, D.C., lately make one wonder if there is some contagious disease that prompts these outbursts.
Although, I must admit, this outburst was before the Cheney/Snow claims that the nation’s chief executive and vice chief executive are not executive branch members.
In a flash of irony that shattered irony meters across libraries, laboratories and the research facilities in Oklahoma universities, Oklahoma’s U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn placed a hold on the bill to name a post office in honor of Rachel Carson, accusing Carson of “junk science.” What Coburn failed to say — or, God forbid, failed to notice — is that the criticisms of Carson are truly junk science.
In the Washington Post Coburn offered this inexplicable explanation:
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.”
This issue is arcane enough that history aficionados reading may not be fully aware of the problems with Coburn’s claims. Let me explain.
First, Carson didn’t complain about insecticides, but instead pointed out that overuse of some insecticides is damaging to the environment, and ultimately frustrates their use as intended. As Carson pointed out, DDT was ceasing to be effective in the fight against malaria due to this overuse. In other words, Carson’s advocacy, if it was as effective as Coburn imagines, saved DDT as an effective tool in the fight against malaria. But Coburn blames her for the opposite. It’s as if he were treating a kid who fell out of a tree, and he blamed the broken arm on a cold virus, because the kid’s nose was running.
Second, DDT is a deadly killer. It’s not like DDT is perfectly harmless. Carson, using studies by insecticide manufacturers and entomologists accumulated over the previous 20 years, pointed out that broadcast use of DDT to protect cotton from boll weevils not only failed to protect the cotton, it also endangered humans. Overuse of any insecticide tends to drive evolution of resistance in the insects targeted, and this is exactly what happened, and what Carson reported. That’s not junk science in any form. It’s accurate, real science, that benefits humans.
Had Carson’s book not appeared when it did, it is quite possible, maybe even likely, that it would have been rendered completely useless against insects.
But even worse, animals don’t evolve resistance as quickly as insects can, and the levels of DDT and its daughter compounds were multiplied in living things as they were higher in a local food chain. DDT is absorbed into living tissues very effectively, so it does not remain floating about, say, in the water of a swamp where it is sprayed for mosquitoes. Instead it is absorbed by other insects, by plants, and then by the animals that consume those insects and plants, and then by the predators at the top of the food chains. Carson was way ahead of her time in understanding this relationship, but the science at the time supported her conclusions exactly, and every study done since then has reinforced Carson’s reporting of the scientific conclusions.
This was important because, as concentrated especially in birds, DDT and its daughters cause eggs to be non-viable, and it even changes the behaviors of birds in raising their young. DDT kills the next generation of birds. It is especially deadly against raptors at the top of the food chain — America’s symbol, the bald eagle, for example, was driven to the brink of extinction by DDT — but it also kills the songbirds which, in a well-balanced ecosystem, keep mosquito populations down and prevent the spread of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria or dengue fever.
So DDT use, as Sen. Coburn appears to defend it, would have left the world malaria and mosquito-ridden, exactly the opposite of his claims.
Third, Carson’s book has been verified in hundreds of studies. To call it “debunked” is either a total purchase of junk science, or a dastardly distortion of the the facts. Carson worried that DDT might be a cause of cancer, a carcinogen. Knowledge of carcinogens was so limited when she wrote that Congress and the medical establishment — two groups Coburn belongs to — endorsed the Delaney Clause to the Food and Drug Act in 1957, ordering that nothing that caused cancer be allowed as an additive in foods or food supplements. This seems almost naive today, when we know that some things, like selenium, are both essential nutrients and carcinogenic, and when we can detect vanishingly small traces of carcinogens in almost everything. Carson called our attention to potential dangers of DDT.
And, it turns out, she was mostly right about DDT and cancer. The good news is that DDT is not a potent carcinogen in humans that we know. Coburn appears to rest his entire case on a misunderstanding of that last sentence. Anti-Carson screeds tend to note that DDT has not been found to be a major cause of breast cancer in women. While true, that study leaves these facts: DDT is a known carcinogen in mammals (and we know of no carcinogen that affects other mammals that is not also a carcinogen for humans, who are mammals); DDT’s effects would be expected to show up in liver cancer, because DDT is a toxin and toxins damage the liver even as the organ does its job in cleaning the toxin out; DDT is a known toxin to human livers, causing liver damage leading to liver disease. Liver disease is a frequent precursor to liver cancer. We need more studies, but it is simply false to say that we know DDT is not a carcinogen. DDT is a carcinogen; the only thing we don’t know is how potent it is in humans.
So here we have Sen. Coburn, an MD in the Senate, a man who has the training of a scientist, a guy who used to practice medicine, helping people avoid things that harm or kill them, falling victim to junk science claims about Rachel Carson and her work, and DDT and what it does, and how it does it.
It ain’t the things we don’t know that get us into trouble, some wag once said: It’s the things we know that ain’t so.
Perhaps you could drop Dr. Coburn a letter, gently inform him of the facts, and ask that he release the hold on honoring Rachel Carson, winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the woman who saved DDT from becoming a useless limb in the war against insect-borne disease? It would be the patriotic thing to do.