A plan to honor environmental pioneer and "Silent Spring" author Rachel Carson on her centennial Sunday was blocked by a U.S. senator who believes Carson created a climate of "hysteria and misinformation."
Sen. Tom Coburn derailed approval of a Senate resolution honoring the life of Carson, whose 1962 book "Silent Spring" warned of the dangers posed to wildlife and humans by the pesticide DDT and who is credited with inspiring the modern environmental movement.
"Rachel Carson's work both directly and indirectly created a climate of hysteria and misinformation about the impact of DDT on the human populations," said John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn, in explaining why the Oklahoma Republican withheld his support for the plan to honor her.
"Obviously her central claim about what it does to ecosystems was largely correct," Hart said by telephone. "But her approach was consistent with a lot of environmental rhetoric which tends to sensationalize the facts."
Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who planned the Senate honor for Carson and expected an easy approval in time for what would have been her 100th birthday, was taken by surprise by Coburn's decision to block it.
"Rachel Carson has been an inspiration to a generation of environmentalists, scientists and biologists who made a difference and changed the irresponsible use of pesticides," Cardin said in a telephone interview. "Honoring her 100th birthday should not be controversial. I wanted to share that with our country."
Originally developed as a powerful multi-species pesticide, DDT was used in World War II to clear South Pacific islands of malaria-causing insects for U.S. troops and in Europe as a de-lousing powder.
Carson described how DDT enters the food chain and accumulates in the fatty tissues of animals, including humans, causing cancer and genetic damage. Her book is credited with the U.S. decision to ban the chemical in 1972, though the World Health Organization approved it last year for use indoors to fight malaria.
Cardin said Coburn's rejection of the honor for Carson was inappropriate and arbitrary.
"What Sen. Coburn is doing is basically citing the line of the interest groups ... because they had an economic interest in DDT," Cardin said.
Coburn's spokesman said the indirect result of Carson's work was to spawn "an unscientific bias against DDT."
"The result of that is that millions of people in the developing world died because the environmental movement, inspired by Rachel Carson, created a climate of fear and hysteria about DDT," Hart said.
Carson, who died in 1964, will not go without tributes on Sunday: there will be a celebration and feast at her family homestead in Springdale, Penn., and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh has an exhibit in her honor.