Now that the worldwide euphoria over Obama’s victory is abating, it’s time to look at some dismal facts: The air is still thick with pollution, the globe is still warming, and the science community is in a frenzy over who the president-elect will choose to head up the battered, broken EPA.
The short and distinguished list of candidates includes include former Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection head Kathleen McGinty; California Air Resources Board chairwoman Mary Nichols; Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection head Ian Bowles; Kansas governor Kathleen Sibelius; New Jersey environmental commissioner Lisa Jackson; and, finally, environmental lawyer, activist, and prolific blogger Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
While all are talented and have the potential to breathe life into the foundering agency, the one receiving the biggest pounding is Kennedy. Across the Internet, science writers have lambasted the longtime environmentalist for his alleged “anti-science” views—in particular, his public criticism of vaccines.
There’s no question that Kennedy has been vocal in his campaign against the CDC, particularly regarding its stance on Thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative. In 2005, he published a controversial piece in Salon charging that the government had concealed data showing that Thimerosal-containing vaccines were harmful. Critics excoriated the article, and Kennedy has since been labeled a traitor to science and affixed with the anti-vaxer label.
Still, the reality isn’t quite so simple. While Kennedy has indeed pointed accusatory fingers at certain vaccine practices—and has fallen victim to the “hand-picked studies” effect on at least one occasion—the charges that he’s a full-on anti-vaxer are incorrect and arguably irrelevant.
The distinction is this: Kennedy’s focus has been on making vaccines “safe” (i.e. Thimerosal-free), not eliminating them. This position is in contrast to that of many anti-vaxers, who dangerously assert that the MMR vaccine causes autism and other health problems, despite the lack of valid scientific evidence for their theory. While he charges the CDC with making poor choices, he has repeatedly stated that he remains pro-vaccine.
On the environmental side (the one that’s most germane to his ability to run the EPA), Kennedy has a 25-year career that includes some impressive achievements, including founding the Waterkeeper Alliance, winning nearly $200 million in damages against DuPont for waste-dumping, and cleaning up the Hudson River. His resume also includes advances in cleantech, alternative energy, and emissions reductions.
Is he the right man for the job? Perhaps not. The jury is still out—and may never reach a consensus—on whether he’s been right about a single Thimerosal claim, and the fact remains that Kennedy and his campaign against Thimerosal have been used as ammunition in the larger, pointless fight against vaccines—a fact he’s no doubt aware of. Still, when we’re debating an issue as crucial as this one, it’s worth scrutinizing the details before jumping on any bandwagons.