Some people do things that are so stupid that one wonders how they manage to shave or put make-up on the next morning, having to look at their own face.
53 Republican representatives voted against naming the post office in Springdale, Pennsylvania, after Rachel Carson, the scientist who wrote Silent Spring, generally considered one of the most important or most influential scientists of the 20th century. No kidding. Springdale is Carson’s hometown.
Why did the Wacky 53 vote against the honor for Carson, who got the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980? In an earnest ritual of voodoo science, they claim that bans on DDT kill millions, and that DDT is harmless. No, I’m not making this up — here’s the story from the Salt Lake Tribune, which covers territory represented by Rep. Rob Bishop and Rep. Chris Cannon, both R-Utah:
They contend that Carson’s actions – which led to a ban on the chemical DDT used to kill pests – actually has caused more deaths because of malaria and other diseases spread by insects. DDT, Carson wrote, was detrimental to the environment and to humans. Some scientists say DDT led to the California condor’s near-extinction.
“Rachel Carson’s sentimental book, Silent Spring, was a large part of the reason DDT was banned even though the evidence then and now demonstrates that DDT does not cause cancer nor does it do other harm to humans,” Cannon said in a statement. “Millions of people, mostly children, have died because the world did not control mosquitoes with DDT.”
Bishop’s chief of staff, Scott Parker, says his boss has similar concerns “that maybe 100 percent of the things Carson talked about and claimed as facts weren’t completely accurate or proven true by science.”
If they cared to do so, these Members of Congress could call the Library of Congress and get a briefing paper on DDT written by an authority on the subject. Within three or four pages they could be disabused of these crazy ideas they have that Carson’s work was controversial, or wrong, or that there have been ill effects as a result. Almost everything they say in their statements is dead wrong. It would be impossible to get so much science wrong by simple chance.
Here is an NIH paper that notes DDT is not suspected of causing breast cancer. I don’t believe Carson ever alleged that DDT did cause cancer anywhere, so the study is moot.
DDT is a poison, and it acts as a hormone in low doses where it is not toxic — it acts as estrogen. Carson’s case against the poison was based on its devastating effects on ecosystems, where it contaminated fish and birds. Famously, DDT interfered with birds’ ability to make hard calcified shells for eggs. Raptors that ate other animals that had DDT in them, such as osprey and bald and golden eagles, could not make eggs that would survive incubation. We lost dozens of generations of these birds.
The other part of Carson’s case against DDT was that it was simply overused and used inappropriately in agriculture, where broadcast applications led insects to develope immunity to the stuff. Mosquitoes, for example, mutated to digest the stuff almost as food, rather than die from it, making it almost wholly ineffective against many malaria-spreading mosquitoes.
So, what difference does it make that DDT is not also carcinogenic to breasts? None at all. (Oh, it just gets worse: The Hudson Institute put out this piece, with a claim that DDT is safe in homes, and acts as a mosquito repellant, which is not how it works at all; it even gets her birthday wrong, such is the bias of these wackoes.)
My old boss Orrin Hatch was famous among his staffers, early on, for odd ideas, similar to these claims that Rachel Carson doesn’t deserve a post office named after her. Fortunately, Hatch developed a habit of biting his tongue and asking staffers to research issues before spouting off. Hatch is still a member of the Utah delegation. Perhaps he could take Bishop and Cannon under his wing, and give them a few clues.
H.R. 1434 was sponsored by Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pennsylvania, who represents Pennsylvania’s 4th Congressional District, in which Springdale resides.
Update: In my dudgeon, I failed to note the article that originally caught my eye, an op-ed piece by Weber State University zoology Prof. John Mull, in The Salt Lake Tribune on May 12. Mull noted:
Four decades of scientific research have substantiated Carson’s basic message and added considerable detail to it. Much of this understanding has been acquired through research funded by congressional allocations.
Biologist George Woodwell of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts recently summarized the problem as “a chemical corruption of the globe that affects human conception, embryogenesis, fetal development, birth and life thereafter.” His statement is a far more accurate summary of reality than the smokescreens thrown up by Bishop and Cannon to justify their votes.
In fact, the U.S. was one of 150 nations to sign the 2001 Stockholm Convention on POPs. Formally enacted in May 2004, this international agreement bans the use of 12 types of POPs. These include several insecticides – DDT among them – and certain classes of widely used industrial compounds like PCBs.
The Stockholm Convention makes an important exception for DDT. It bans the use of the pesticide in agricultural settings – a policy long in effect in the developed world – while allowing continued and limited applications of DDT for controlling the Anopheles mosquitoes that transmit malaria. Its indiscriminate use in agriculture was largely responsible for harmful effects on many non-target animals, most famously bald eagles and peregrine falcons.
Malaria does remain a serious killer, especially of young children in tropical Africa, but not for the reason that Cannon suggests. Rather, it persists as the deadliest of insect-transmitted diseases for other reasons. These include the evolution of pesticide resistance in mosquitoes and of drug resistance in malaria parasites, lack of access to basic medical care and preventive measures, like mosquito netting, and deforestation and other forms of environmental degradation.
Rachel Carson in 1963; photo by Bob Schutz, Associated Press.