One of the five children in the cluster of polio-like paralysis cases around San Francisco is the daughter of professional winemakers, seeming to strengthen the possibility we raised Tuesday that exposure to agricultural chemicals could be a factor in the cases.
Sofia Jarvis, whose story was reported on ABC and other national outlets, is the daughter of Jessica Tomei (above) and Jeff Jarvis, husband-wife co-owners of JarvisTomei winery. Jessica Tomei is also listed as director of international winemaking for Cupcake vineyards in Livermore, California. She has a degree in viticulture from the University of California, Davis, and according to her Linked In profile, her duties at Cupcake include "vineyard management." The family lives in Berkeley.
In a story Tuesday, we wrote that the new outbreak -– five confirmed paralysis cases from Monterey up through the San Francisco Bay Area, and about 20 more statewide as far away as San Diego -- echoes early outbreaks of actual poliomyelitis in the 1890s. Three of the first 12 polio clusters in the United States occurred in California – in the San Francisco area, in the San Joaquin Valley, and in San Francisco and Napa.
In 2011, we published a series of articles, The Age of Polio, which suggested that those and subsequent outbreaks were triggered not by the poliovirus alone but in combination with a new pesticide that came on the market then, lead arsenate. We proposed that when someone with an active polio infection -- usually a child not yet immune to the virus -- ate produce treated with the pesticide, the toxin could allow the virus to reach the spine, causing the paralytic and sometimes fatal disease called poliomyelitis.
In that series and again on Tuesday, we wrote that the presence of the San Jaoquin Valley among early outbreaks pointed to an agricultural vector as the cause (as did several other locales), and that the San Francisco/Napa cluster specifically suggested “widespread early use of lead arsenate in grape-growing country.” Lead arsenate was replaced as a pesticide by DDT, and DDT in turn by newer and supposedly safer chemicals that are nonetheless toxic by design to living things. So the idea that successor pesticides, similar in effect to lead arsenate and DDT, could still be triggering paralysis in children infected with a virus similar to polio made sense to us.
In a brief conversation Tuesday afternoon, Jessica Tomei seemed skeptical of the idea that agricultural chemicals played any role in 4-year-old Sofia’s illness. “We don’t have vineyards,” she said of the company she owns with her husband. “This happened at the end of harvest in November . She was not with me at any of those vineyards.”
Tomei said doctors “did test for metals, Lyme disease, all kinds of things,” but didn’t come up with anything. “They’re thinking more viral.”
In a subsequent e-mail, she wrote that “I am not an expert in this so I cannot comment. The idea of bringing attention to this is to have people start collaborating to figure out what might have caused it.”
Officials say there’s no reason for alarm. "We want to temper the concern, because at the moment, it does not appear to represent a major epidemic but only a very rare phenomenon," Dr. Keith Van Haren said at a Stanford press conference attended by Sofia and her parents. State epidemiologist Dr. Gil Chavez said his department “has not identified any common causes that suggest that the cases are linked.”
But needless to say, the potential for more cases of a serious ailment of unknown origin is troubling. And the fact that the only family so far identified fits a profile we had already proposed strikes us as potentially significant. But without evidence of an actual toxic exposure, or similar connections among the other cases, the possibility remains speculative.
Still, the clues are intriguing. Pesticide usage for wine grapes has expanded rapidly in California in recent years. Like DDT, some old chemicals have seen declines in usage. But new compounds aimed at paralyzing the nervous systems of living things continue to come on the market, supposedly in safer and more targeted formulations, one step behind the pests they are trying to subdue. Despite efforts to monitor and reduce pesticide usage, the pressure to satisfy America’s growing taste for wine in the face of these new threats is inexorable.
In August of last year, according to The Grower, a new troublemaker arrived: “Winegrape pest turns up in Napa County.”
“Two small populations of Virginia creeper leafhopper have been confirmed in Napa County,” the publication reported, bringing to three the number of California counties where this invasive pest has been found.”
Dan Olmsted is Editor and Mark Blaxill Editor at Large of Age of Autism. They are co-authors of the book The Age of Autism -- Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epidemic.