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AN EARTH DAY SALUTE TO ALL THE MUCKRAKERS

Some conservationists are known as muckrakers. This coming Friday is the 35th Earth Day, and I salute environmental muckrakers in this column as my small contribution to that celebration. I believe these folks richly deserve our recognition and support.

My dictionary defines a muckraker as one who exposes political or other corruption, real or alleged. The word's source derives, of course, from digging mud and slime -- not a highly regarded activity. The same kind of disfavor usually attaches to those who expose and address the many problems with our environment. They often overwhelm and even irritate us.

This product causes cancer. Those fish are full of mercury poisons. That creek is contaminated with e coli. That marsh will be drained for development. And more generally: Lead paint is reducing our children's IQs. Our air is impure. The ozone layer is being dissipated. Global warming threatens. Tropical forests are disappearing. Many plants and animals are nearing extinction while starlings and loosestrife and zebra mussels are taking over the Earth.

We are made uncomfortable by that litany of problems, and too often we seek simply to avoid them. We're encouraged in this response by two groups: representatives of industry whose profits will be reduced if we respond to the problems and the politicians who are powerfully influenced by those industries.

Consider perhaps the most important muckraker of them all, Rachel Carson. Her 1962 book "Silent Spring" brought out the worst in her many opponents. Industries, in particular the chemical industry, devoted millions of dollars to personal attacks on this shy woman dying of cancer.

Those attacks continue today. For example, novelist Michael Crichton has this to say of "Silent Spring" in his screed, "State of Fear": "I am old enough to remember reading this poetic, persuasive text with alarm and excitement when it was first published; it was clear even then that it would change the world. With the passage of time, Carson's text appears more flawed and more overtly polemical. It is, to be blunt, about one-third right and two-thirds wrong. Carson is particularly to be faulted for her specious promotion of the idea that most cancer is caused by the environment. This fear remains in general circulation decades later."

Never mind that Carson was a deeply informed scientist and a person who checked her facts with scores of scientific colleagues. I find it hard to believe that Crichton, an M.D. himself, would claim that cancer is not caused by our environment. The evidence on Carson's side is overwhelming.

The other day I visited the home of my neighbor, Suzie Rivol Solender, whose house dust had been tested by a muckraking organization, the Citizens' Environmental Coalition. Clearly from the many toys in evidence, her grandchildren's health had motivated Solender's participation in this seven-state study.

Their health is indeed threatened. The researchers found dangerous compounds in those homes, their source such consumer products as electronics, cosmetics, flooring and upholstery.

Many of us will react to this as just more of the same. Our legislators, too. They usually assign such concerns to committees whose members, beholden to industrial lobbyists, will only reluctantly address them and, when they do, at glacial speed.

But headway is being made. Progressive companies such as Dell, IKEA, Herman Miller and Shaw Carpets have modified manufacturing to use safer chemicals. And safeguarding legislation is passed. Despite intensive bromine industry lobbying, a bill supported by State Sen. Carl Marcellino, R-Long Island, and Assembly member Thomas DiNapoli, D-Great Neck, phasing out brominated flame retardants that have been linked to health problems was recently signed by Gov. George Pataki.

While I credit those politicians, still more recognition should go to groups like the Citizens' Environmental Coalition that do the muck work. I wish I could salute here all the organizations and individuals that push us to address such serious environmental problems.

We'd be in dire straits without them.

e-mail: insrisg@buffalo.edu