L-tryptophan killed 100 in 1989

In October, 1989, 44-year old Kathy Lorio arrived in the medical office of Dr. Phil Hertzman in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Lorio, who had been healthy and active, was suddenly struck with severe pain and a host of debilitating symptoms. Blood tests revealed that her eosinophil count had skyrocketed. The normal concentration of this white blood cell is about 10 per CC. Allergies or asthma can make it rise to 500. Lorio’s was over 10,000.

In a coincidence that was destined to save lives, Hertzman referred her to Santa Fe rheumatologist James Mayer, who happened to have recently seen another patient, Bonnie Bishop, with similar symptoms. Bishop was in severe pain, her arms and legs were filled with fluid, she had trouble breathing, and her muscles were so weak she couldn’t even sit up. “She slumped like a rag doll.”And her eosinophil count was extremely high.

Patient histories revealed that both Bishop and Lorio were taking the food supplement L-tryptophan. Although it was the only supplement common to both patients, the doctors were hesitant to blame L-tryptophan for the disease. It is an essential amino acid, naturally found in turkey and milk, and in supplement form had been consumed safely for years as a treatment for stress, insomnia and depression.

Within two weeks, three other patients checked into the Mayo Clinic with serious symptoms—one needed a respirator to breathe. All had taken L-tryptophan and they were from different parts of the country. Gleich called the CDC again. He told them it’s not limited to New Mexico—it’s out and it’s deadly. An L-tryptophan alert went nationwide.

Articles began circulating about the mysterious disease. TheAlbuquerque Journal ran a series about it that eventually won the Pulitzer Prize. The New York Times covered it. As more articles appeared, the phone calls started coming in—first dozens, then hundreds, then thousands: individuals with incurable symptoms, doctors with incurable patients, and stories of horrific symptoms. Some had coughs, rashes, physical weakness, pneumonia, breathing difficulties, hardening of the skin, mouth ulcers, nausea, shortness of breath, muscle spasms, visual problems, hair loss, difficulty with concentration or memory, and paralysis. Not everyone had all the symptoms, but everyone seemed to be in pain—greater pain than doctors had seen before. The disease was named eosinophilia myalgia syndrome, or EMS—eosinophilia because of the high cell count, myalgia because of the muscle pain. In all, about 5,000—10,000 people got sick; some are permanently disabled. About 100 people died.

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported on July 11, 1990 that people only got EMS from pills made by Showa Denko, one of the six manufacturers whose L-tryptophan was imported into the U.S. from Japan. Showa Denko’s pills had several unique contaminants that were likely to be responsible for the epidemic. Moreover, the manufacturer was genetically engineering bacteria to produce the L-tryptophan more economically. Genes had been inserted into bacteria’s DNA in order to produce high concentrations of several enzymes used in its production.

Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, who helped track the source of the epidemic, said in a Newsday article on August 14, “This obviously leads to that whole debate about genetic engineering.”

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