On May 1, 1981, eight-year-old Jaime Vaquero became the first victim in what would be the deadliest food-borne illness outbreak of any developed nation in the modern era. Around 700 people met the same fate as Vaquero,
the New York Times reported
, and over 20,000 got sick and survived, though many still dealt with the after-effects of the contamination years later as they were left disabled.
The cause of the epidemic, however, is still a scientific mystery.
The victims all suffered from what would be called toxic oil syndrome, a name created specifically for this epidemic. The source of the illness identified at the time was rapeseed oil, an industrial lubricant.
Even though it was dyed and laced with aniline, a coal tar extract, to prevent it from being mistakenly ingested, some less-than-scrupulous entrepreneurs figured out a way to remove the dye and aniline, though some simply didn't bother, according to this theory. The oil merchants then peddled their product as cheap olive oil among Madrid's working class neighborhoods.
That's how the official story goes anyhow. Although adulterated rapeseed oil is most commonly cited as the cause of the epidemic, members of the survivor and scientific communities have their doubts.
Laboratory studies were unable to recreate the symptoms seen in the victims, and some alleged a cover-up. One of the leading competing theories is that toxic tomatoes led to organophosphate poisoning,
according to the Associated Press
. Another conspiracy suggested a breach with biological weapons at a U.S. air base.
Is Your Olive Oil As Healthy As You Think?