A New Zealand navy veteran who won a compensation battle after successfully linking his Parkinson's disease to chemical exposure in the 1960s has spoken out for the first time about the fumes he likened to solvent abuse.
He says despite suffering neurological pain in the 1970s after working with toxic chemicals on assignment both here and overseas, he was told to "get on with it" and that it was all in his head.
It comes after a Herald investigation found hundreds, if not thousands, of New Zealanders may have been affected by the toxic chemical trichloroethylene (TCE) in a wide range of workplaces over several decades.
In a potentially-landmark case, Veterans Affairs' has provided the ex-serviceman, who wants to remain anonymous, with an entitlement to disability compensation for Parkinson's, a condition attributed to his operational service on a Royal New Zealand Navy ship during the 1948-1960 Malayan Emergency.
The Herald has since tracked down other men who fear their handling of TCE in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s may have caused their debilitating diseases and who now want to pursue their own compensation cases.
A former New Zealand Post Office telephone exchange technician, a naval dockyards apprentice and an aircraft engineer have all spoken about using TCE, now classified as a carcinogen, in their workplaces for years, without any health and safety precautions.
None of them used gloves or breathing apparatus while being exposed to the potent halocarbon that was popular across an array of sectors and workplaces in New Zealand, including garages, railway and aircraft workshops, and other depots.
Now, the 75-year-old veteran who was granted a compensation package after a long battle, has spoken out about using trichloroethylene, known as trichlo, tricho, or trike, while degreasing and cleaning electronics on various ships during his naval career.
He signed up in 1959 and used TCE both in New Zealand and at sea from 1960 to 1972 on Loch, Leander, and Whitby-class frigates.
The most intensive period of TCE use was between 1960 and 1963, he said, as a degreaser to clean bearings for new components that came packed in solid grease.
It was used without gloves, breathing apparatus, or any other safety measures.
They also used it liberally in internal ship compartments to strip wax floor polish.
"I remember cleaning the decks but having to go outside because I felt woozy and light-headed. My present day analogy is that it wasn't too much different to solvent sniffing. Basically, that's what it was," said the veteran who lives in Northland.
"In the tropics, we'd be in shorts and it would splash on our bare skin. It would really dry you out."
Air circulation in the compartments where they worked was limited, he said, while the product, which he recalls coming in plain, one gallon tins, featured no safety warnings.
The veteran was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2013.
However, he first reported neurological pain to Navy officials back in the 1970s.
"At the time and, to put it bluntly, they said it was all in my head," he said.
"But in fairness, nobody knew it was toxic, and therefore, no precautions were taken. You were told to just get on with it and that's what you did."
A neurologist reported he displayed a number of neurological symptoms dating back about 30 years, which were also evident to his wife.
The potentially precedent-setting compensation decision was made on appeal to the independent Veterans' Entitlements Appeal Board.
It was made possible by ground-breaking international research including a major 2011 study on TCE exposure that concluded it was likely to result in a sixfold increase in the chances of developing Parkinson's.
Another factor was the surge of disability compensation payments to veterans exposed to toxic water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. After decades of legal wrangling, the US Department of Veterans Affairs began accepting claims earlier this year from Camp Lejeune veterans with disabilities stemming from eight presumptive conditions, including Parkinson's.
The veteran fears it would be a "hard road" for veterans to fight for compensation but hoped his case would open the door for others.
The RSA, which has advocated for veterans sickened by environmental exposures, including those from radiation exposure and Agent Orange, also wants others concerned with historic TCE exposure to come forward.
"There is also likely to be many more serving or ex-serving NZDF people in [the veteran]'s situation, related to different types of exposures, who are unaware of any possible link," said National RSA support services manager Mark Compain.
None of the men interviewed by the Herald are angry with their former employers. The dangers of trichloroethylene were unknown at the time. It was even used as a surgical anaesthetic until as late as the 1980s.
ACC says while it sees claims for chronic solvent neurotoxicity, usually in relation to spraypaints, it has not yet received any claims specifically for TCE exposure in the workplace causing Parkinson's.
TCE is still approved for use under tight controls as a cleaning agent at Whenuapai and Ohakea air force bases, NZDF confirmed.
However, it said the air force was "actively investigating alternative cleaners/solvents".