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By Dan Olmsted
In this series I’ve proposed that the polio epidemic of 1916, which started in Brooklyn and spread to all five New York City boroughs and finally the entire Northeast, was triggered by arsenic, used for the first time ever, as a weed killer on one Hawaiian sugar plantation. The sugar that I suspect was arsenic tainted arrived by freighter at the Brooklyn docks, was unloaded and then refined at mammoth factories in Queens and Yonkers, and ingested by children who also were exposed to the poliovirus, triggering the first big regional poliomyelitis epidemic.
On the face of it, the notion seems too complicated and unlikely to make sense, a kind of Rube Goldberg version of a simple mousetrap involving chutes and ladders and bells and whistles rather than a coiled spring and a piece of cheese. Isn't polio just a viral infection that in some unlucky cases causes paralysis and death? (Or isn't it just a toxic injury passed off as a virus, as some readers believe?) My answer is that it's an interaction of the two. It's what makes that small percentage of children "unlucky." As I quote Einstein at the start of the series, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." Nature in this case has not provided a simpler explanation, which may make it harder to accept but has no bearing on whether it is true or not.
But why bother, at this late date when polio has been eliminated in the U.S. and nearly wiped off the face of the Earth? Well, for one thing, it's endlessly fascinating as a medical and cultural saga that continues to misinform our understanding of disease and how to prevent it -- the fear of iron lungs has led to a phobia of even the most benign of childhood illnesses and the cult of vaccination uber alles. Most important, it is the same kind of mechanism that I believe has led us into the Age of Autism -- live viruses whose harm is "amplified" by the presence of toxic metals like mercury and aluminum. Autism is a man-made epidemic. So is polio.
By taking on polio, I'm laying the groundwork to understand and accept the same mechanism in autism and other modern illnesses. Ultimately this series has as much to do with Michelle Cedillo and the 5,000 other children in the Omnibus Autism Proceeding as it does with the 2,500 children who died in New York City that summer of 1916. False narratives need to be taken down and replaced with the truth, and it's never too late.
One hundred years ago the ability to detect and remove minute quantities of a toxin like arsenic from a substance like raw sugar would have been lacking. That's according to an AOA reader and environmental toxicologist who has been helping me understand the chemistry behind this idea. This week I asked her if white arsenic -- the type of arsenic used on the Hawaii plantation, Olaa, as a pesticide -- would have been harder to detect because it looks like sugar.
Her response: "The relevant characteristic is not what arsenic trioxide [white arsenic] looks like when dried, but how it behaves when in solution. Both sugar and arsenic trioxide dissolve readily in water and they can’t be separated out from the water with the types of filtration systems used in a sugar refinery 100 years ago. Those passive filtration systems were designed to catch larger types of molecules, including parts from crushed plants, crushed dirt/stones, crushed insects, etc.
"Arsenic trioxide, or arsenite, has a very strong attraction to the water molecules, so you have to use an active system like reverse osmosis to separate it from water. Sugar and arsenite would 'travel together' all the way through the filtration process; the final product, when dried, was just white crystals so there would have been no visual clue that arsenite was mixed in with the sugar."
She also explained: “Arsenic in sugar would result in intermittent dosing, which is more likely to manifest in some of the other known symptoms of arsenic toxicity such as GI upset. Orally ingested arsenic is very hard on the intestines. Orally ingested poliovirus enters the body through the intestines, which will be less able to fight off a viral invasion if arsenic-induced inflammation and necrosis is present.”
So far we’ve traced the roots and rise of the 1916 epidemic from Brooklyn through the rest of New York City, including Queens and Yonkers which had the highest rates of polio of the five boroughs and of any city with a population between 50,000 and 100,000, respectively. Now let’s look at the big picture and see if the correlations continue. In an interesting 2011 medical journal article, H.V. Wyatt suggests the virus must have mutated (and then escaped from a lab in New York City) in order to explain the unusual characteristics of the epidemic:
All this argued that something unusual was going on, whatever one’s theory of the case. In the first article in the series, I wrote: “What set off the Explosion of 1916? If I'm right, an environmental bomb landing in just about the worst possible place at the worst possible time set it off, the impact spreading with a smooth but terrible precision like ripples from a pebble dropped into a still volcanic lake.” That was an allusion to the evidence that would follow linking it to Hawaiian sugar.
Finally, let’s compare this to sugar distribution in 1916. As I’ve outlined, the bulk of Hawaiian sugar arrived in New York Harbor and Philadelphia early in 1916, while a lesser amount to Boston. (Some also went to the refinery in Crockett, California.) Some sugar cane – but not from Hawaii – was processed in Charleston, another East Coast port that received raw sugar from Cuba and Puerto Rico, and also in Louisiana, which grew and refined its own. Then there was the huge crop of sugar beets, grown and processed in the heartland and western states.
Here are sugar distribution zones from a 1959 government publication. The Northeast, the Middle Atlantic, Maryland, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Virginia, West Virginia, Michigan and surrounding states -- this looks like the territory of the polio epidemic to me.
I couldn’t find a distribution map from 1916 (f anyone can, please let me know), but a couple of years after the 1916 outbreak, when sugar rationing went into effect in the United States due to World War I, here is how the sugar board divided things up:
That suggests the sugar was distributed about how you’d expect, along regional lines closest to the sources of production. The North Atlantic States pretty much match the hardest-hit 1916 poliomyelitis outbreak states.
I’m well aware correlation does not equal causation, and that the evidence presented in this series so far is not dispositive -- that's why future installments will delve into other outbreaks to lay down as much evidence as I possibly can. Nonetheless, a look at the big picture of Hawaiian sugar refining and distribution from New York, Philadelphia and Boston in 1916 does nothing to falsify the idea presented in this series so far. Facts, as my colleague Mark Blaxill says, cluster around a good hypothesis. I also admire the words of Judge Francis Buller to the jury in a 1781 murder trial, which we quoted in our book The Age of Autism:
“You are not to expect visible proofs in a work of darkness. You are to collect the truth from circumstances, and little collateral facts, which taken singly afford no proof, yet put together, so tally with, and confirm each other, that they are as strong and convincing evidence, as facts that appear in the broad face of the day."
The circumstances, the collateral facts, and the evidence do seem to connect and confirm each other. As I’ve shown, the “experts” lampooned and failed to follow up on repeated observations that sugar-heavy foods, from candy to baked goods to soft drinks to the places that sold and served them from Coney Island to grocery stores to delis and lunchrooms, seemed to be the centers of polio outbreaks. That dismissive approach by the "experts" to eyewitnesses and "ordinary" people is an ongoing tragedy and an overriding theme of this project. Just because they failed to take it seriously a century ago does not mean we can't take it seriously now. That's what historical epidemiology is all about.
Let’s end our survey of the New York epidemic where we started, with the widely lampooned idea that “ice cream causes polio,” a supposed classic of false correlation, even though people cited it repeatedly at the time. That brings us back to Mrs. G.W. Franklin and her ice cream store at 1295 Gates Avenue in Brooklyn, the one “all the children naturally frequently,” in a building where two cousins died in May 1916. It’s the place where Mrs. Franklin collapsed on the floor on June 19, paralyzed. It was a strange scenario that matched the observations people were making about places like that being the center of polio clusters. Yet the public health commissioner at the time, Haven Emerson, said: “It may not add to the sum of scientific data to quote the suggestions received by the Department of Health as to the cause and means of curing or preventing poliomyelitis; but as a record of human interest the letters sent from all over this country and from many foreign lands present a picture which it is well for health officers to bear in mind. One hardly knows whether to laugh at the fantasies or weep over the ignorance and superstition exhibited. ...
“Two hundred and thirty suggestions as the cause of the disease were received," he continued, "the largest number of authors (80) attributing the existing calamity to foods. Ice cream, soft drinks, candy and summer fruits were generally accused, cereals and canned foods coming second in favor."
We recounted Mrs. Frankin's journey to the hospital and then her release and recovery to the point where she could walk again. Nine different doctors treated her, unsure of what she had, settling on “a light case of meningitis.” In an undated report by a health department nurse she is described as “able to be up and around and shows no sign of paralysis although she is still very weak.” By then the diagnosis had changed, too. “There can be no doubt that Mrs. Franklin had poliomyelitis and as far as our records go this is the oldest case on record.” She was 56, strikingly old (in fact, the oldest) to come down with the illness for the first time, especially surrounded by children for years.
It was not, sadly, the final note in the file. From a card dated October 6, just as the first great epidemic that presaged the next 40 years of disability and death and terror was beginning to burn itself out:
“Name of patient: Mrs. G.W. Franklin.
“Patient was taken to Jamaica Hospital about September 20 and died October 1. She never entirely regained use of her limbs.”
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.