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Author Questions Toxic Energy Sources

By Josiah P. Child, Contributing Writer

Devra Lee Davis, author of 2002 National Book Award finalist When Smoke Ran Like Water, told an audience of Harvard environmentalists to think more about saving the males.

Yes, the males. Davis, who was the keynote speaker at the Harvard Center for the Environment’s annual symposium Saturday, discussed her research on the impacts of fossil fuel use. Pollution stemming form these fuels, she said, cause a variety of ailments among industrial workers, including sterility or a preponderance of female births.

Davis’ speech touched on her personal experience as a child in the smoggy town of Donora, Penn.—where the smokestacks killed twenty people and sickened thousands more in 1948.

“It was great if you were a tomboy like I was,” Davis said. “You could slide to first, second, third and home because there wasn’t any grass under your feet.”

Davis said that for many workers, towns like Donora could be a mixed blessing. The smoke could kill you or harm your children, she said, but at the same time “smoke meant money and smoke meant jobs.”

Much of Davis’ speech focused on leaded gasoline’s effect on children. “Children live and breath at the level of the tailpipe,” she pointed out.

Among the studies she cited, many of them conducted by Harvard scientists, was one that related lead levels in the bloodstreams of young children to those children’s intelligence quotients. Miniscule increases in lead levels, Davis said, cause measurable—and even significant—declines in I.Q.

Davis, who served during the Clinton administration on the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, also blasted the Bush administration’s environmental policies.

“Let’s not kid ourselves, this administration gives new meaning to the term ‘crackpot science,’” Davis said.

She related her research on fossil fuels to the war on Iraq, calling for thought to be given to alternative fuel sources.

“There has been no public discussion of what the geopolitical chessboard would look like if we didn’t need any oil at all,” she said.

Davis said industrialized nations need to seriously rethink their energy policies. “We can do more with less in many ways today,” she said, adding that “we need to move ourselves off a carbon-based economy onto a renewable-based economy.”

Davis said that activists’ only defense against environmentally-unfriendly policies is “public information and more discussion.”

Davis’ speech, the keynote of the day-long symposium, came toward the close of events on Saturday, which featured several panel discussions and an environmental awareness poster competition. Anne Riederer, a student at the School of Public Health, and Ethan Yeh ’03 both took home $400 prizes for their posters.

At a panel on environmental justice earlier in the day, Ami Zota, a Masters student at the School of Public Health, emphasized the need for more public education, organization of advocacy groups and research of injustices.

Stephen J. Quinlan ’04, a co-chair of Harvard’s Environmental Action Committee, offered more specific ideas, as he lead a discussion on a plan for a new environmental internship program.

Quinlan said the program would work through alumni contacts to give Harvard students practical experience in environmental advocacy.

“What we really need to do is start strengthening the connection between the Harvard world and the outside world,” Quinlan said.

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