Now, nearly 13 years after the fire broke out Aug. 7, 1998, the possible health impact of the black smoke from the burning tires is centered on one family’s eyes.
A mother, her teenage daughter and a 4-year-old daughter living near or downwind from the fire all went blind, and medical researchers suspect the combination of the smoke and a little-known genetic disease could be the cause.
The name of the local family suffering multiple blindness has never been released to the public, but the case is well-documented in scientific circles, according to a Boston-based author.
He is collecting information for a book on what is called Leber’s Heritable Optical Neuropathy, commonly known as LHON, and a mutant gene in carriers’ mitochondria, described as “the energy factories that live in all our cells.”
The disease occurs because the optic nerve, which sends information from the eye to the brain, runs out of energy and fails — forever. First one eye goes blind, and then a few weeks later the other eye loses sight, the author explained.
He reported that researchers at the University of Southern California are investigating the disease’s impact on a large family in Brazil.
Their work has shown that people who have inherited the mutant gene — always from the mother — don’t always go blind, but smoke and alcohol seem to somehow trigger the blindness. Younger men are more prone to be affected.
There is no known cure, and no known way to prevent it.
The family members living near or downwind from the 1998 tire fire didn’t know they carried the mutation, and the mother suddenly lost vision in one eye and then the other. An adolescent daughter also lost sight, and then the 4-year-old became the youngest known case, the author reported.
“Doctors looking for the reason soon learned that they lived near — or maybe downwind from — that huge tire fire in 1998,” the Bostonian told me while seeking a photo of the tire fire.
Because the plume of black smoke covered a wide area, especially southeast of the fire, the location of the afflicted family has not been publicly pinpointed, but the family’s loss of sight was reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a chemical analysis of the tire-fire smoke.
The author added a word of caution: “As far as I know, there is no proof yet that the tire smoke caused their blindness.”
But the combination of the family’s genetic history and proximity to smoke from the tire fire certainly points in that direction.
n Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by e-mail at email@example.com.