Read part 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1.
By Dan Olmsted
Our story so far: The great Northeast polio epidemic was first reported 100 years ago next Friday, ushering in the Age of Polio that afflicted increasing swaths of the globe. In New York City alone, 2,343 died, almost all children, putting the toll on a par with the 2,753 who died on 9.11. This series proposes a new theory for when and where and why the virus exploded; the theory, if correct, has implications for modern disorders and diseases as seemingly dissimilar as autism and EV-68. So far we’ve dug into misunderstood and undervalued clues from Brooklyn, where the first cases occurred -- the clusters near the waterfront docks and the beach boardwalk of Coney Island; the repeated association with certain foods; the tendency of “experts” to laugh off the observations of ordinary people, the latter a detriment to discovery to this day. Now we’ve taken a sharp left turn and traveled to Hawaii, where the new manager of a troubled sugar plantation is desperately looking to cut costs and increase yield.
Along with his generous salary, Charles F. Eckart reaped other benefits that went with being a Hawaiian plantation manager in 1913. In vivid contrast to his former life as an experiment station official, he lived in a mansion two miles from the Olaa plantation office. A book about a subsequent Hawaiian sugar strike by Masayo Umezawa Duus captures the world that awaited him as he approached for the first time his new home with its immense veranda, stables for riding horses, and distant view of the Pacific.
"The mansion still stands,” Duus wrote in 1987, “its landmark a huge banyan tree that is said to date from the era when native chieftans held power. Along the private road leading to the mansion dozens of tall coconut trees pierced the sky. The three-story white structure sits on the crest of a rise surrounded by an expansive lawn.” Although it’s decrepit now, the place is imposing enough to “hint at the status and power of the plantation manager, who the Japanese laborers likened to a daimyo, a feudal lord, and whom they likened to the ‘owner’ of the plantation.”
Eckart barely had time to settle in. He quickly set about addressing Olaa’s crop woes with expertise and tools developed at the experiment station. The root of the problem at Olaa was the rainfall on the windward volcanic slope of the Big Island, which could reach 200 inches a year and allowed weeds to overtake the crop itself. The manpower required to keep ahead of them over the two-year growing season threatened whatever profit the plantation might eke out. At the experiment station, Eckart and a fellow researcher, H.P. Agee, had been working on a solution -- literally.
An arsenic solution.
“New method of weed control,” the journal Sugar reported in June 1915, after that solution had been widely implemented on Olaa’s sugarcane fields. “The system which would appear to be the most satisfactory is that of Agee and Eckart, in which the weeds are sprayed with arsenite of soda. Two special spraying apparatus have been invented, the spread sprayer and the knapsack sprayer.”
Early concerns about the method had been alleviated, the article said. One was whether the arsenic would kill the golden goose – the sugarcane – and not just the weeds. It didn’t: “Experiments carried out in Olaa, in which arsenic was applied to the soil between the rows at the rate of 5 lbs. per acre each week for six months, showed that the arsenic had no injurious effect on the growth of the cane plant.”
If you think the second issue might be whether the arsenic posed any problem for those who would ultimately ingest the sugar, you would be mistaken. “The second problem, as to whether the poison employed in the process damages the cane itself, has also been answered in the negative. It is true that, even with the best apparatus, small quantities of the spray cannot be prevented from coming into contact with the leaves of the young cane occasionally. But this is not a matter of importance, because it is at most occasions a slight check to the cane, from which it recovers entirely within a few weeks.”
What a relief – to the owners, at any rate. You could spray thousands of gallons of an arsenic solution on fields for two years and still harvest a healthy crop. Sure, a lot of arsenic got into the sloping, rain-soaked soil, and who could help sloshing a little onto the sugarcane plant from time to time? Meanwhile, the dead weeds were left where they lay to decompose. The point was, the plant recovered. It was not a matter of importance.
Here we are, then, in June 1915, with arsenic being sprayed for the first time – ever, anywhere, as far as I can tell – on a sugarcane crop. “It may be said that this method of weed control already has passed the experimental stage,” the article stated, “as it has been adopted as a part of the normal field work in the extensive plantation at Olaa.”
The article gives the formula – 5 pounds of arsenite [an arsenic-based compound] to 100 gallons of water. Eckart, the article said, was ordering as much sled-spraying as possible, with a “light hand-spraying to touch up the spots that may have been missed by the sleds.” According to an unnamed authority, “by observing the proper rules and ordinary intelligence, spraying can save a plantation in labor from $15 to $30 per year per acre.”
This process appears to have gotten under way not long after Eckart’s arrival in 1913. Given the two-year growing season, followed by harvesting, hauling, and milling at a nearby factory, the first crop that got the full arsenic treatment was doubtless the one that arrived at East Coast early in 1916.
I’m always interested in the first time something is tried, because, almost by definition, no one knows what the hell he or she is doing. That’s why they call it an experiment. It’s one thing to try arsenic out at the experiment station, another to spray thousands of gallons on thousands of acres will yield thousands of tons of sugar to be consumed thousands of miles away, with no sense of caution that things might be a little different this year.
Too much arsenic? If so, where? In the soil? In the leaves? In the stalk? In the sugar? How about variables like rain, volcanic soil, gradient, uptake characteristics of the cane and the arsenic compound? And how about the machinery developed just for the job, which while triumphs of invention for their day might not pass muster in 2016. What about the consequences of mingling “poison,” food, and the potential for human error, with little to no oversight from anyone but those who stood to profit?
Seriously, what about it? Next week we’ll examine those questions in depth.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.