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By Dan Olmsted
As we prepare to follow the Hawaiian sugar harvest to the U.S. mainland in early 1916, a natural pause suggests itself. I’ve now presented the basic hypothesis: that arsenic applied for the first time ever to sugarcane fields anywhere, at the Olaa plantation on the Big Island of Hawaii, led to the first massive poliomyelitis epidemic in the United States.
It triggered the Explosion that ushered in the Age of Polio.
That kind of claim attracts critics who use words like "laughable." (Of course, laughable things can be true.) Over at Orac, Denice Walter commented: "Although I am often highly entertained by your speculation, I would be much more pleased with you if you took a few life science related courses at your local university." I responded: "Denice, I remain pleased that you are highly entertained. I fear that exposure to actual experts might reduce my ability to amuse you, so I’ll avoid it for now." (The claim here is that a non-scientist journalist such as myself has no business tackling a topic like this. I disagree.)
So perhaps it’s time to say a little more about how the theory evolved and where I am heading with it. In 2011, Mark Blaxill and I wrote a series called The Age of Polio: How an Old Virus and New Toxins Triggered a Man-Made Epidemic.
In it, we proposed that the invention of lead arsenate pesticide in 1892, interacting with poliovirus infections, kicked off the modern era of polio epidemics. Lead arsenate was created to fight the gypsy moth invasion around Boston that threatened to wreck the entire domestic apple crop. In a literal and metaphoric instance of the “butterfly effect” – seemingly minor and distant events leading to major disruptions -- a few moths escaped their enclosure in a back yard in suburban Medford, and before long turned into teeming masses undulating like black waves across suburban streets to devour fruit trees in one collective gulp. This story almost defies belief, but The Great Gypsy Moth War by Robert J. Spear brings it to creepy-crawly life.
Lead arsenate subdued the moth problem, but the association of the pesticide with poliomyelitis is hard for dispassionate observers (meaning those not wedded to virology as the explanation for everything) to dismiss. In 1893, the year after the first use of lead arsenate in Boston, two local doctors wrote a medical journal article, “Is Acute Poliomyelitis Unusually Prevalent This Season?” and very quickly established that it was unusually prevalent. “It would not have seemed worthwhile to report these observations had it not been that the number of cases observed at the Massachusetts General Hospital in September and October of this year [apple harvest time] is decidedly larger than usual. …” Putting together all the cases from four sources, they came up with six polio cases for the period August-November 1892, and 26 for the same period in 1893.
While that was an impressive rise, it could have simply been natural variation; sporadic cases were observed by medical professionals over the past several decades. Hence the question mark. But the very next year, 1894, in the Otter River Valley in Vermont, came the answer – an unmistakable poliomyelitis epidemic.
The account, a classic of medical literature worth reading in its own right, was provided by Dr. Charles Caverly, a Rutland physician who also happened to be the president of the state medical society – and was in the right place at the right time. The beginning is memorable and haunting, given what was to come and the fact that epidemic poliomyelitis was so unfamiliar in the United States that Caverly didn’t even call it “infantile paralysis” or poliomyelitis until later articles.
“During the month of June, 1894, there appeared in a portion of the valley of the Otter Creek, in the state of Vermont, an epidemic of nervous disease, in which the distinctive and most common symptom was paralysis. The great majority of sufferers were children under six years of age.” Hardest hit were the towns of Rutland and Proctor. There were 132 cases and 18 deaths.
This was not like Boston the year before. This was big.
As outbreaks became more frequent and much larger, “lead arsenate was proposed as a cause of polio epidemics early on,” as we wrote in 2011:
"In Massachusetts, where the compound was first used, the State Forester reported in 1912, under a section headed Infantile Paralysis: “In view of the fact that a feeling has been entertained by some people in the State that infantile paralysis has been caused in some instances by arsenate of lead used in spraying for the gypsy and brown-tail moths, the State Forester has caused a rigid investigation to be made in order to determine if there is any foundation upon which to base such fears.”
No there was not: “As a result of his research he is firmly convinced that the use of arsenate of lead has in no way been responsible for the existence of the disease [infantile paralysis], and apprehends no danger in the future from its use. Any anxiety concerning the danger from the use of arsenate of lead is entirely unwarranted.” Of course, today we'd say that anxiety was warranted simply because of the name of the compound!
On the other side of the globe, a New Zealand newspaper reported in 1914: “The oft-expressed opinion that the arsenate of lead spray on fruit is the cause of the prevalence of infantile paralysis will be discussed at the next meeting of the Upper Clutha Fruit-growers’ Association at Bannockburn. The association is taking steps to obtain the result of Government experiments regarding this matter.” (We have not found a follow-up report.)”
These concerns were never taken seriously. When you consider what was potentially at stake --half a million cases of death or disability a year worldwide by the 1940s -- that was worse than unfortunate. When DDT replaced lead arsenate after World War II, a handful of brave souls put forward the idea that pesticides, not the poliovirus, were the cause.
As Mark and I wrote in 2011:
In 1949 Drs. Morton S. Biskind and Irving Bieber published “DDT Poisoning – A New Symptom With Neuropsychiatric Manifestations” in the American Journal of Psychotherapy. “By far the most disturbing of all the manifestations are the subjective reactions and the extreme muscular weakness,” they reported.
In subsequent papers and testimony, Biskind linked DDT directly to cases of poliomyelitis – including a Dec. 12, 1950, statement to the Select Committee to Investigate the Use of Chemicals in Food Products, United States House of Representatives. He quoted another doctor that “wherever DDT had been used intensively against polio, not only was there an epidemic of the syndrome I have described but the incidence of polio continued to rise and in fact appeared where it had not been before.
“This is not surprising since it is known that not only can DDT poisoning produce a condition that may easily be mistaken for polio in an epidemic but also being a nerve poison itself, may damage cells in the spinal cord and thus increase the susceptibility to the virus.”
“Facts are stubborn,” Biskind concluded, “and refusal to accept them does not avoid their inexorable effects -- the tragic consequences are now upon us.”
The theory was also advanced by Ralph R. Scobey, who in 1952 gave a statement to the same House committee. Titled “The Poison Cause of Poliomyelitis and Obstructions To Its Investigation,” it described associations between harvest seasons, fresh fruit consumption, and polio epidemics.
The next year, Biskind made the link even more explicit: “In the United States the incidence of polio had been increasing prior to 1945 at a fairly constant rate, but its epidemiologic characteristics remained unchanged. Beginning in 1946 the rate of increase more than doubled.” Yet far from looking into a toxic etiology, he said, “virtually the entire apparatus of communication, lay and scientific alike, has been devoted to denying, concealing, suppressing, distorting and attempts to convert into its opposite, the overwhelming evidence. Libel, slander and economic boycott have not been overlooked in this campaign.”
More recently, medical writer Jim West has argued strongly for the link, and pointed to other risks from pesticides, like Parkinson’s Disease. In articles like, “Everything You Think You Know About Polio is Wrong,” he champions Biskind and the poison theory of polio.
“Today, few remember this poignant writer who struggled with the issues of pesticides, issues that Rachel Carson would be allowed to politely bring to public awareness nine years later, as the lead story in The New Yorker magazine and then as a national best seller, by limiting her focus to the environment and wildlife. Biskind had the audacity to write about human damage.”
Under our theory, that's true, but it's half the equation; the poliovirus is required as well to add up to poliomyelitis epidemics. And the implications reach far beyond polio: Toxins can amplify minor microbes into major epidemics to a far greater extent than is currently recognized.
With this paradigm in mind, let’s head back across the Pacific to Brooklyn. Early in 1916, sugar from Hawaii arrived at the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company dock in Brooklyn, which had recently been overhauled into a two-story behemoth.
You may recognize the map below from earlier in the series. It shows the way in which poliomyelitis cases arrayed themselves in 1916 near the Bush Terminal docks. The three-sided rectangle to the left center is the American-Hawaiian dock. We’ll pick it up from there next week.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.