Here’s something worth knowing about the cluster of “polio-like illnesses” identified by doctors in the San Francisco area: Some of the first outbreaks of actual poliomyletis in the United States more than a century ago happened in the same area.
Is history repeating itself? Are more cases on the way, and not just in California? It’s a question worth asking, and far more important to public health than headline-grabbing measles and whooping cough outbreaks. But don’t hold your breath, because the real answer may say more about the nature of modern illness than most mainstream medical “experts” would care to consider.
As news outlets reported on the cases on Monday – “five patients who developed paralysis in one or more of their limbs between August 2012 and July 2013” in a 100-mile radius in California, CNN said – I was drawn back to the series Mark Baxill and I wrote in 2011, called The Age of Polio: How an Old Virus and New Toxins Triggered a Man-Made Epidemic.
In that 12,000-word series, we argued that a fresh look at the evidence suggested that for millennia, polio was almost always a harmless enterovirus – a stomach bug – until late in the 19th century. That's when a new pesticide called lead arsenate allowed the virus access to the nervous system, where it reached the spinal cord; this combination was the trigger for the first outbreaks of the paralytic disease called poliomyelitis.
“The reality, we believe, is that the virus itself was just half the epidemic equation -- necessary but not sufficient to create The Age of Polio," we wrote. "Outbreaks were not caused solely by poliovirus – the microbe was an ancient and heretofore harmless intestinal bug -- but by its interaction with a new toxin, most often innovative pesticides used to treat fruits and vegetables.” When children who were infected with the virus ate lead arsenate-laden produce, they were exquisitely vulnerable.
As evidence, we cited the first dozen or so outbreaks that occurred in the 1890s, just as lead arsenate was invented and first used commercially. The first of those clusters was “in 1893 in Boston (26 cases, no deaths). Then, in 1894, came what is widely regarded as the first major epidemic, in Rutland and Proctor, Vermont (132 cases, 18 deaths). Thirty more outbreaks – from such seemingly disparate locations as Oceana County, Michigan, and California’s Napa Valley -- were reported in the United States through 1909. The worst by far was New York in 1907, with 2,500 cases and a five percent mortality rate, a harbinger of the 1916 epidemic in the Northeast that killed 2,000 in New York City alone.”
Ah yes, California’s Napa Valley, just above San Francisco. Anyone? Anyone? We suspected widespread early use of lead arsenate in grape-growing country. In fact, the San Francisco area was home to three of the first dozen outbreaks – a quarter of the total. According to the peer-reviewed journal paper, “The Spatial Dynamics of Polio,” they were San Francisco and Napa, 1896 (three victims); San Joaquin Valley, 1899 (four victims); and San Francisco and vicinity, 1901 (55 victims). One fourth of the earliest clusters, in and around San Francisco.
As Cher said to Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck: "Snap out of it!" It's hard to see how “the experts” could miss something this obvious – that poliomyelitis outbreaks had a toxic co-factor, that the toxic co-factor was a new ag chemical, and that the new ag chemical could only be lead arsenate -- although having spent the last decade on the history of autism, I kind of get it. The whole intellectual terrain is toxic: What’s involved is not just a virus, nor an environmental hazard, but a combination that threatened both germ theory – the medical industry – and the agriculture industry. (Which kept on modernizing – the really big polio epidemics began post-World War II, as did the rise of DDT as the even-deadlier replacement for lead arsenate.)
From autism (as well as Parkinson’s), we’ve also learned that pesticides can be a risk for neurological disorders – a well-regarded study in 2007 found an apparent higher risk of autism in mothers who lived near farm fields in California’s Central Valley, where pesticide drift is a well-known phenomenon. It called for more study, which one might have thought was a matter of urgency. (Mark Blaxill and I have also shown that the first cases of autism, reported in 1943, included families with startling background exposures to the new ethylmercury compounds, including the fungicide Ceresan.)
So what’s going on with this latest “polio-like” outbreak, which the doctors in California suspect may be the result of another (non-polio) enterovirus? Who knows, but I consider it eminently reasonable to put toxins on the table when I come across the words “enterovirus,” “San Francisco,” “polio-like” and “cluster” in the same news story. ("Speculation," said Darwin, "is the basis of all good and original observation." One might also speculate on a role for the current epic California drought -- there's no rain to wash the pesticides off the produce; poliomyelitis cases were known to increase during dry summers.)
And it’s reasonable to be concerned this time around, too – remember, 3 cases of actual poliomyelitis in San Francisco in 1896 presaged 2,000 deaths in New York City just two decades later, followed by wave after worsening wave of epidemics.
We’d be a lot further along on all this, I suspect, if the “experts” had paid more attention to the evidence more than a century ago. There's still time.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.