Landmark legal case will probe the link between Parkinson’s disease and insecticide sprays used on long-haul flights
LONG-haul flight attendants who have been forced to spray insecticide through aircraft cabins every time they landed in Australia fear the chemicals may have given them Parkinson’s disease.
And experts have warned any frequent international flyer exposed to repeated doses of insecticide within an enclosed aircraft cabin could also face the same risk.
Former Qantas steward Brett Vollus has been diagnosed with the disease, which can leave victims immobile, speechless or with tremors, and is preparing to launch a legal action against the Commonwealth government, which enforces the need for spraying to prevent disease.
“We all blindly sprayed this insecticide as we landed in Australia after every long-haul flight. Why wasn’t I warned that it could give me this disease?” he said.
Mr Vollus, 52, worked as flight attendant with Qantas for 27 years up until May this year and was referred to a neurosurgeon as the symptoms of Parkinson’s began to kick in.
Checks also uncovered a malignant brain tumour.
“He asked me what I did for living and when I told him he just nodded and said: ‘Another one, I am seeing a lot of you’,” he said.
That set alarm bells ringing and Mr Vollus began checking to see if there were any links between the flight attendants’ regular exposure to pesticides at work and the disease.
The social stigma attached to Parkinson’s disease means many sufferers do not come forward but Mr Vollus believes there could be hundreds of other crew members who could join his legal action.
“This is a nightmare that has ruined my life. I am very keen to start a legal action and if it can help others I am happy to lead the way,” he said.
Turner Freeman lawyer Tanya Segelov, who successfully represented stewardess Joanne Turner over toxic fumes exposures in aircraft, said: “I am investigating a claim on Mr Vollus’s behalf.”
Ms Segelov helped hostess Joanne Turner win almost $140,000 in costs and damages after she inhaled fumes from a faulty compressor on a BAe146 flight from Sydney to Brisbane.
“If it can be shown that at the time it was sprayed the Commonwealth knew or should have known that airline employees having repeated exposures to the spray over a long period of time were at risk of injury, then the Commonwealth will be liable to pay damages,” she said.
Crucial to the case would be proving the link between pesticides and Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s expert Professor Kay Double, from the University of Sydney’s Medical School, said: “Certainly there is epidemiological evidence that the exposure to the chemicals in pesticides is associated with an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease. It is actually the number of times you are exposed and the amount you are exposed which increases the risk.”
Prof Double said most research had been done with farmers who had been found to have an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease if they used chemical pesticides often. Regular and total exposure in a confined space, such as an aircraft, could greatly increase that risk of developing Parkinson’s disease in later life.
“The fact that flight attendants were exposed in a very contained area, have a total exposure and are then left breathing the residual chemicals may have a role to play in their eventual diagnosis,” she said.
“We do know there are a number of these herbicides and pesticides that do damage to particular cells which leads to Parkinson’s disease.”
Personnel from the RAAF have also been exposed to the chemicals as part of quarantine procedures.
Randolph Heynsdyk, 55, from North Richmond spent 21 years as an engineer frame fitter in the RAAF. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2004 and suspects regular exposure to pesticides could be to blame. “I would often be in the cargo bay or the passenger area as the spraying was done,” he said.
It has changed the father of two’s life. “You just freeze and cannot move. You get tired and the medications have terrible side effects.” He recently had surgery to a pacemaker to provide 24-hour stimulation to the brain.
PESTICIDE A ‘TOXIC SOUP’ IN A SPRAY CAN Matthew Benns
SPRAYING pesticides inside aircraft is like lobbing “a hand grenade of toxic soup” at passengers and crew, a respiratory expert warned yesterday.
“I have sat on aircraft when they have sprayed and thought this is not a good idea,” Dr Jonathan Burdon said.
He said passengers and crew had no choice but to breathe it in.“The pesticides are basically sprayed in a sealed container where the same air is being recycled,” he said. ”Once you breathe it in, it’s in.”
Dr Burdon has specialised in dealing with flight crew who have been exposed to toxic fumes from leaking engine oil being superheated and pumped into jet air supplies.
He believes repeated exposure to pesticides can cause Parkinson’s disease.
“There is no question that pesticides do cause neurological damage but it is not one size fits all,” he said.
“Some people who are exposed regularly can be affected but other people for some reason are not.”
Research has found that chemicals contained in pesticides, including permethrin, attack the brain cells that make dopamine.
The classic symptoms of Parkinson’s disease such as body tremors, muscle rigidity and problems with movement have been linked to the loss of production of dopamine.
One expert likened the loss of dopamine to trying to run a car without oil in the engine.
Parkinson’s slowly progresses over time and a diagnosis today may mean the individual has had the disease for the past 10 years.
A recent Italian study of all the available evidence concluded that exposure to pesticides is “a risk factor for Parkinson’s disease” and called for more research to explain the cause and effect.
STEWARD IAN WHITE HAD AN INKLING OF THE RISKS Matthew Benns
QANTAS steward Ian White always thought there was something wrong with the spraying of passengers, crew and jets with insecticides on arrival in Australia.
“Ian always said he wondered if those sprays would have some sort of effect on him,” said his wife Alfreda, of the spraying Qantas was legally obliged to carry out.“Now he is in a home with Parkinson’s disease.”
Ian, 75, retired following 36 years of flying only to be struck down by the disease and dementia.
He no longer recognises his wife and children.
“It is terrible what has happened to him,” said Mrs White, who started her career as a stewardess with Pan Am.
“At least if this link is brought into the public eye the authorities will be forced to look at it and hopefully not do it anymore.
“It is common sense. If you have an enclosed space like an aeroplane and you empty two cans of aerosol into it while people are sitting there and then keep the doors closed, something bad is bound to happen.”
INSECTICIDES POSE NO RISK TO PASSENGERS AND STOP SERIOUS DISEASE, OFFICIALS SAY Matthew Benns
THERE is no evidence the spraying of insecticide inside aircraft to safeguard against the spread of dangerous disease causes any health problems, the federal government said.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said all spraying followed World Health Organisation guidelines.
“The WHO has found no evidence that disinsection sprays, when used according to their guidelines and manufacturers’ instructions, are harmful to human health,” she said.
The spraying was an important step in preventing the spread of disease, she said.
“Australia is free from several very serious diseases, including yellow fever and malaria, which are all transmitted by insects,” she said.
“If any of these diseases became established in Australia they could have a devastating effect on our community, as these diseases cause significant numbers of deaths and illness in many other countries.”
Only nine countries including India and Cuba still require planes to be sprayed with insecticide while the passengers are on board.
Seven others, including Australia and New Zealand, insist aircraft be sprayed with insecticide but allow for it to be done before passengers get on board.
Protocols on the Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry website explain that, with approval, aircraft can be treated with a residual spray in the hangar. Ground crew are told to wear a mask and protective clothing.
Otherwise cabin crew have to spray the aircraft twice – before the passengers get on and while the passengers are sitting in their seats as the plane begins its descent into Australia.
The protocols specify that, for example, a Boeing 747 needs to be sprayed with four 100g cans of insecticide containing a 2 per cent active ingredient of the chemical permathrin – the chemical linked by studies to Parkinson’s disease.
A spokeswoman for Qantas said: “We comply with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry’s requirements, as do all airlines that fly into Australia.”