Exquisite aromas of barbeque beef promised a sublime experience. Great spoonsful were ladled out onto plates and onto buns, along with potato salad, cole slaw, corn bread, and pies. And people ate. Did they ever eat. One thing about Landrum family reunions that was never forgotten was the food. Unfortunately, something else memorable was delivered by this reunion.
By the next day, 39 of the 53 attendees had become very ill, and one of those died. But not until after they seemed to go a bit manic.
“I don’t get it, Bruce,” Donna said. “The tests showed no food poisoning. In anything. Even the potato salad that sat out for hours is clean. Not a bacterium to be seen.”
“The lady in charge was, you know, a food sanitarian,” Bruce said. “She took it pretty seriously. That potato salad sat out over ice, was kept in the shade and was covered the whole time it wasn’t being served. Basically, whatever poisoned those people was not the usual run-of-the-mill thing. It’s got to be something new, something maybe even we haven’t seen before.”
Donna gazed out the window onto the green space embraced by the government building. “So now this local health department thinks we can figure it out?”
“They contacted the CDC, too. Maybe they don’t have much faith in a lowly state health department like us.” Bruce looked disgruntled. Of course, he rarely looked gruntled.
“The local department did a pretty good job, from the looks of it. They traced the chain of custody of the food. They got samples of apparently everything. They got blood samples from the sick and even tissue samples from the dead guy. No test they’ve run has turned up anything.”
“No toxin, you mean. We do know that there was sort of adrenal thing going on.”
“The people appeared to be overstimulated by adrenalin. They seemed to be in an extreme state of alarm and stress-shock. As far as we can tell, that’s what killed the one guy.”
Bruce shook his head. “Now, Donna, what could possibly do that in the food? Surely it’s got to be some kind of artificial drug that we haven’t detected. This may have been deliberate sabotage.” But nothing was found.
One well-loved aspect of the county fair was the meal served by the Ladies of the Summer Breeze. There was only one dinner selection, but it was consumed in great quantities: roast chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and hot biscuits. It turned out sickening for most and fatal for 3.
“This is basically like the other incident,” Bruce said. “Two mass food poisonings in our state, same symptoms, people dying, different food.”
“We have to find some commonality,” Donna said. “There must be something in common.”
“All I can see are just a few things. Both involved potatoes in some, you know, form. Both involved large group events of some kind. Both involved hot meals that were served. And I guess there were maybe some common ingredients between the biscuits and the cornbread.” Bruce was ticking these off on his stubby fingers.
Donna took a sip of her coffee. She loved her coffee, but nothing like Bruce liked his. Her regular mug paled in comparison to his giant travel mug. She also took it black, while he took lots of cream and even more sugar. But then, she was svelte, even skinny, while he was rather bulky. “Again, no trace of anything in the food. And we have several scattered reports of similar incidents happening individually, not in groups. We can’t say they’re even linked to food. The symptoms don’t appear immediately.”
“But we have to make the assumption that it’s about food or drink, Donna. Whatever’s causing this is coming from somewhere, and it doesn’t appear to be in the air, not as scattered as these reports are.”
“No, and we have indications that the same disease is happening in other states.”
“I say it’s a deliberate sabotage act by someone or something.”
“Some THING? You mean space aliens, Bruce?”
He looked disgusted. “You know what I mean, you know, like a revolutionary group or some such like that. A GROUP of people. A conspiracy.”
Donna looked doubtful. She bit a small clump of her dark hair. “I just don’t swallow it, Bruce-O. I think we’re just not seeing something.”
Within the next week, thousands of cases of the illness, now known as Landrum Syndrome after its first known appearance, were appearing all over the nation, and the Centers for Disease Control were working in full swing.
“So the CDC is going full-guns, full-blast on this thing. What makes you think that you can figure out anything they can’t, Donna?” Bruce was leaning back in his seat, his fingers laced across his broad stomach.
“Bruce, Bruce, Bruce. This is a genuine epidemic. And every time the death rate seems to go up a little. Everyone needs to be trying to figure this.” Donna slid her glasses down her nose and looked at Bruce over them. “Don’t YOU have any ideas? You usually do.”
“I’ve told you my idea. I’ve told it to the CDC. I’ve told it to everyone.”
“You mean the deliberate sabotage thing.”
“Yeah, that’s the thing. Basically, it works by Occam’s razor, if you think about it. The simplest explanation and all that.”
“Except we’re getting scattered cases of all kinds. And they’ve found nothing. And there’s no common thread among the groups affected.”
“Ah! That’s where you’re wrong. They HAVE found something.”
“You mean you’re holding out on me?”
“No, of course I’m not. This just came in, just now. While you were powdering your nose.” Bruce pulled out a sheet of paper. “They’ve found a substance in the victims. They extracted some and gave it to rats, and they went berserk, then some died.”
Donna grabbed the computer printout out of Bruce’s hand. Scanning it, she saw that the substance was a new compound, apparently some sort of hormonal stimulant.
“Bruce, look here. First of all, the stuff was found only in the body tissues, NOT any food, drink, or other stuff. Second, why on Earth would anyone poison people with such a bizarre substance, and one which probably is prohibitively expensive to manufacture? And third, why would so many scattered people and groups be getting sick?”
“Maybe it’s not in the food. Maybe it’s in something unsuspected. Water. Pop. Aspirin. Remember the cyanide in the Tylenol years ago? You know, something like that could be widely distributed, nation-wide.”
“Nope, still don’t swallow it.”
Bruce leaned back, sighed, spread his hands and looked heavenward. “Apparently, it can be fatal if you do.”
The next morning, Donna and Bruce were due to meet with the governor about the epidemic. Donna sat in the governor’s outer office, waiting, and Bruce rushed in with a large coffee to go.
“Forgot my mug this morning,” he said. “This was the largest they had. Shoulda gotten two of the blinking things.”
“You drink too much coffee, anyway.”
Bruce rolled his eyes heavenward. “Lecture number 39. And I use WAY too much cream.”
“That you do.”
Bruce sat and started sipping his coffee as rapidly as he could, considering the heat. He had just drained the cup when they were summoned in to speak with the governor. He tossed the polystyrene cup in the secretary’s trash can and trailed Donna in.
They gave a full update to the governor on everything known to date. Governor McCorkle usually looked pretty cheerful, but not today. He had looked grim when they had entered, and was looking more and more as if he had swallowed a questionable life-form (and knew it) as they continued.
“So what can be done?” he growled, after they had concluded their briefing.
“Everything that can be done is basically being done,” Bruce said. “Though I still wonder if somebody isn’t doing something funny here.”
Donna shot him an aggrieved glance. “We have no evidence of sabotage,” she said, “And neither does anyone else.”
“But we have no evidence that it’s not sabotage, either,” Bruce retorted.
“I’ll talk to the state police,” McCorkle said. “See what they think about investigating. We MUST show that everything possible is being done.”
Bruce had taken the bus to the governor’s meeting, and was riding with Donna back to the office. They had said little for the last half-hour, but were now nearing their destination.
“I can’t believe you brought up the sabotage idea,” she said, practically snarling. Bruce didn’t respond.
Donna looked over at him and he was tense and sweating. His eyes were bulging. “Hospital,” he gasped through clenched teeth, as he grasped the door handle with all his strength. Donna’s jaw dropped as she observed that he was actually shaking, his muscles involuntarily quivering. She lost no time getting him to the emergency room. When they got there, there were three other people in a similar state.
Donna stayed until they had taken him in and shooed her out. Discouraged, she went to the office to go over the puzzle.
Fortunately, Bruce made it. The next day, Donna picked him up from the hospital, crisis over. He looked as if he had just run three marathons, climbed the Alps, swum the Bosphorus, and pitched a thousand bales of hay. She helped him to the car, Bruce shuffling slowly. They drove away.
“So this was definitely the Landrum syndrome?” she asked.
“Yes, apparently,” he mumbled, as if talking was an extreme effort. “I’ve never felt so exhausted in my life.”
“Well, I’ve got an idea.”
“So what’s your idea?”
“I found out something about the Landrum picnic. Something I don’t think the CDC has yet.”
“So spill it.”
“Of the only fourteen people who didn’t get really sick, two were infants being bottle-fed. Most of the rest were young children or old people who didn’t eat much. But five were one particular family who did something different from everyone else.”
“Don’t let’s drag this out,” Bruce whispered. It would have normally been a growl.
“That one family brought their own real, actual plates to use. Everyone else used polystyrene foam plates. And in every case I’ve been able to check, people had eaten or drunk from foam plates or cups.”
“Oh, come on, Donna.” Bruce shoved his own heavy glasses back up his nose. “Millions of people are using Styrofoam every day and not getting sick.”
“You can’t call it Styrofoam. That’s Dow’s own brand name for the stuff.”
“It’s what everyone calls it, like Kleenex.”
“We have to call it polystyrene foam. I think that there was one particular batch of the stuff that had something bad in it.”
“I still have a hard time swallowing this.”
“YOU drank your coffee from a polystyrene foam cup before you got sick. You never use those cups. You always use your big travel mug.”
“So call the CDC about it.”
“I’m going to do just that.”
Donna reached someone at the CDC who was doubtful, but listened. And somebody started doing new tests.
Bruce was back at the office, still exhausted but more or less functional.
“Look, Bruce!” Donna was excited, waving her thin hands. “They found that stuff in the Styrofoam!”
“You mean polystyrene foam.” He smirked.
“Yes! But here’s the weird thing. They only found the hormone stuff on the surface of some of the used plates, but didn’t find anything on any unused plate or cup.”
“So the logical conclusion is that something in the food is REACTING with something in the polystyrene to produce this stuff.”
“Yes! Isn’t that exciting?”
“So what’s in polystyrene foam other than polystyrene?”
“Air? I don’t think there’s anything else.”
“So the fundamental question here, basically, is what is new in food or drink that could be reacting with the polystyrene?”
“Right. And here’s the thing. Individual ingredients may be tested for safety–“
“–or not,” Bruce retorted, “Our testing regimens for most things are pretty poor.”
“Anyway, if they’re tested, it’s generally in isolation, almost never in combination with other substances.”
“So it would have to be present in coffee or milk or sugar.”
“Yes, I see what you mean, Bruce. Or the water used to make it.”
“Um, I think that’s really doubtful. Water’s too dispersed a thing to be a likely suspect.”
“Anyway, this seems to be confirmed by an interesting fact. Very few vegetarians or health food nuts have gotten sick.”
Bruce scrunched his eyelids.
“That might mean that it’s NOT the Styrofoam at all.”
“Except that health food nuts tend not to use polystyrene plates and cups.”
“Getting your exercise? Jumping to conclusions?”
“No, people concerned about their health and nutrition also tend to be concerned about the environment, and tend to hate polystyrene foam. But they also–“ She stopped in mid-sentence, wagging finger suspended in the air, a distant look on her face.
“Also WHAT?” Bruce tried to roar, but it came out only a very coarse whisper.
“Research has shown that hot food and drink in contact with certain plastics tend to release chemicals that become endocrine disruptors in the body. It fits, doesn’t it?”
Bruce slumped, eyes closed. After a few moments, he murmured, “You may have something there. But there still has to be something in the food and drink to create a compound this drastic. Trust me, it’s pretty drastic.”
Often, in science, new information fails to particularly elucidate a solution, serving only to dispose of what could have been convenient explanations. It seemed so in this case. Thousands of food samples were tested for chemicals. This gratified a number of foodists and environmentalists, who now had proof they lacked before, as those tests proved widespread contamination by agricultural chemicals, antibiotics, and industrial waste. But there was no completely positive correlation, apparently, between these results and the people getting sick.
“Well, there is one thing in this report,” Bruce growled. He was back after taking two days off to rest. “Right here, there’s a residue of a new antibiotic, it’s present in most of the meat and dairy samples involved, but the problem is that it’s also present in many other samples that didn’t cause any illness – and it didn’t cause any reaction whatsoever with polystyrene. They tried everything they could think of to try to get it to react, but nothing. So, apparently, that’s ruled out. That’s the only positive correlation, and it only goes so far. So, what next?”
“Bruce, I wish I could have had your coffee tested, I mean, the cream in the coffee. But it’s long gone. I did go to the place where you got that coffee, and I asked them about it, and it was still the same cream container that it had been. So I submitted a sample, and it showed traces of three antibiotics, two pesticides, and just a bit of PCB. One of the antibiotics was the one that you just talked about.”
“So why not try using one of their polystyrene cups and –”
“And get some coffee,” Donna said. “I already did that. I got coffee with cream, let it sit for an hour, and had tests run. Nothing. Same batch of cups, same batch of cream, although, of course, new coffee, but they insisted that it was the same batch of ground coffee that they’d used. And there also were no other reports of sickness from that place.”
“Well, that’s certainly for sure what did it to me,” Bruce said. “Surely – oh, no. Wait a minute.” He slapped his forehead.
“I just remembered something.”
“That particular day, I was feeling guilty about all that cream. I also used some fake creamer.”
“But other customers also used the creamer and didn’t get sick.”
“Ah, but did they use BOTH the cream and the creamer?”
Donna looked thoughtful. “You know where I’m going,” she said, and left.
And right they were. It turned out that the combination of cream, creamer, and coffee in the polystyrene cup resulted in a white substance being formed on the surface of the polystyrene. Donna excitedly sent it off to the CDC and they just as excitedly got back with her to inform her that this was, in fact, the substance. She told them that they had used the cream alone with the coffee, the sugar alone with the coffee, and the creamer alone with the coffee, and none of these resulted in the reaction. It did appear that heat either caused or encouraged the reaction.
But what could it be in the creamer? Suspicion certainly centered strongly on the new livestock antibiotic, plus the polystyrene, as well as the heat, but this new factor was still unknown.
“Here, Bruce, they’ve found something. They’ve isolated a compound from the creamer that caused the reaction, but they don’t know where it came from. It’s apparently a chemical new to science. The company that manufactured the creamer insists that it has no idea where it came from. They tested other brands of creamers, and didn’t find it.”
“And the logical conclusion,” Bruce said, “Is that it was carried in on one of the ingredients of the creamer when it was made.”
“Right. But what?”
“What’s different about the creamer that I used from the others?”
“They use cottonseed oil, which most creamers don’t use. But there was cottonseed oil in other foods that didn’t make people sick.”
Bruce snorted. “Hell, the stuff’s in almost everything!”
Then Donna sat down suddenly.
“What?” Bruce asked.
“I just thought of something. You know my Uncle Hi, lives down in Oklahoma?”
“Yeah, the guy grows cotton.”
“Right!” she almost yelled. “And he sells his cotton, and the company that mills out the cotton sells the cottonseed for oil. And he was just telling me about a new pesticide he’s using on the cotton. Seems it has a hormonal effect on the bugs that helps kills them!”
“And maybe it binds to the oil in the cottonseed, and –”
“Well, what you waiting for,” he roared. “Call it into the CDC! I’m sure it was never tested on humans, most of those pesticides aren’t, especially used on cotton! Call the CDC!”
Donna did just that. And they were right.
Within a week, the antibiotic and the pesticide were forcibly withdrawn from the market, and many places started outlawing polystyrene dishware.
“We’re getting a commendation from the governor AND the president,” Bruce cheerfully announced as Donna came in late, due to a flat tire.
“That’s great!” she said. “But . . .”
“In the world today, it’s inevitable that this is going to happen again. Just when we don’t expect it. We can no longer assume that problems like this are just caused by one thing. As our systems keep getting more complex, and as there are millions of untested or inadequately tested chemicals out there, the possibility of unforeseen chemical reactions increases exponentially.”
“And especially as more of them get into our food chain,” Bruce said. “You know what, Donna?”
“What? You giving up coffee?”
“Oh, no. But I’m now using organic coffee, organic cream, organic sugar, stainless steel mug . . .”