Flight attendants who were forced to spray pesticides throughout aircrafts after long-haul flights fear the chemicals they used are the reason they have developed Parkinson’s disease.
The degenerative illness can lead to tremors, muscle rigidity and leave victims immobile and unable to speak. Now experts fear that frequent international flyers, which are exposed to the chemicals within the confined aircraft space, could be facing the same risk.
Brett Vollus is a former air-steward who worked as an attendant on long-haul flights for close to 30 years. He was recently referred to a neurosurgeon and diagnosed with Parkinson’s this year. Subsequent check-ups also revealed he had a malignant brain tumour.
The 52-year-old retiree and his medical team believe years of exposure to the insecticides have led to his diagnosis. Vollus is preparing to launch legal action against the Australian government – which enforces spraying on aircrafts for quarantine purposes.
Vollus’s legal team is already familiar with his case, having recently helped an air hostess win $140,000 in compensation after she was exposed to the toxic fumes on a flight from Sydney to Brisbane.
But they will need to prove the link between regular contact with insecticides used on board aircrafts and the neurological damage that leads to diseases like Parkinson’s.
“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,” Vollus lawyer, Tanya Segelov told reporters.
Previous scientific studies have uncovered a link between the use of insecticides and an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s by damaging the body’s cells – mainly among farmers and rural populations who are frequently exposed to such chemicals.
“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,” Professor Kay Double, a Parkinson’s expert from the University of Sydney’s Medical School, told reporters.
Regular total exposure to the chemicals in a confined space, like an aircraft cabin, could greatly increase a person’s risk of developing the disease later on in life, Kay believes. Personnel from the Royal Australian Air Force have also also regurlarly exposed to such chemicals as part of quarantine procedures.
“We do know there are a number of these herbicides and pesticides that do damage to particular cells which leads to Parkinson’s disease,” she argued.
“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,” Kay added.
Chemicals used in pesticides, like permethrin, are thought to attack the brain cells that make dopamine – neurotransmitters that play a vital role in healthy brain function. Loss of dopamine is directly related to several degenerative brain diseases and dysfunctions including schizophrenia.
However, the neurological damage that can be caused by pesticides does not affect all individuals equally and so proving a link between exposure to the chemical and disease is difficult. Another challenge in proving the cause and effect relationship between insecticides and illness is the late onset of symptoms of a degenerative disease. A Parkinson’s diagnosis today may mean the individual has had the disease for over a decade.
Government officials have denied that the spraying of insecticide inside aircrafts causes any health problems arguing that the proces was vital to preventing the spread of disease. Protocols specify that, a Boeing 747 for example, needs to be sprayed with four 100g cans of insecticide containing a two per cent active ingredient of the chemical permathrin.
Countries like Australia and New Zealand insist aircrafts be sprayed with insecticide before passengers get on board, while other countries continue to spray aircrafts with the pesticides while passengers are on board.