The scale of New Zealanders exposed to toxic industrial solvent trichloroethylene, now linked to a sixfold increase in the chances of developing Parkinson's Disease, extends to thousands of people, across a variety of industries and sectors over several decades, who are now being urged to seek legal advice for a possible class action, a Herald investigation has found.
Since the Herald last month reported on a navy veteran with Parkinson's winning a compensation battle with Veterans Affairs after successfully proving he was exposed to toxic chemical solvents, including trichloroethylene (TCE), while degreasing and cleaning electronics on a Royal New Zealand Navy ship during the 1948-1960 Malayan Emergency, dozens of others with similar serious health fears have come forward.
They include more ex-Royal New Zealand Navy and other military servicemen and women, aircraft engineers, motor mechanics, workshop technicians, New Zealand Post Office workers, and electricians who all used TCE, known as trike, tricho, or trichlo, in their workplaces with no gloves, masks, or other health and safety measures.
Many are now living with the debilitating Parkinson's Disease, while others reported ill health, including bronchiectasis, fibromyalgia, leukaemia and other various cancers, heart complaints, and skin conditions.
Last week, Steve Walker an ex-New Zealand Post employee at the Balclutha exchange, spoke of his struggle with Parkinson's.
He was exposed to the chemical while working at NZ Post.
"It seeped into your skin, into your clothes. It took over you completely," he said of the chemical.
Andrew Hooker of litigation firm Shine Lawyers, which has led class actions including many high-profile personal injury cases in Australia, wants to probe further and urged families who fear exposure to the potent halocarbon is linked to ongoing serious health conditions to seek legal advice.
"Cases like this are notoriously difficult in New Zealand where parties that injure others seem to so often get off scot-free due to a very restrictive statutory regime that allows wrongdoers to escape civil liability, so there is little, if any, accountability. However, there are certain areas of possible liability that could be explored if we had all the facts. If there was a common defendant and commonality between cases, a representative action is always a possibility," he said.
ACC has not yet received any claims specifically for TCE exposure in the workplace causing Parkinson's.
For a Work Related Gradual Process claim to be accepted for developing Parkinson's as a result of TCE exposure, there would need to be evidence that the claimant had "suffered significant exposure to TCE in their workplace; that they had not had similar exposure elsewhere, and that there was strong evidence that people in similar working situations were shown to be at significantly greater risk of developing Parkinson's than people in the general population", ACC says.
However, Schedule 2 of the Accident Compensation Act 2001 lists occupational diseases where the onus lies with ACC to disprove a link, and it includes chronic solvent-induced encephalopathy diagnosed as caused by organic solvents, including trichloroethylene, and peripheral neuropathy diagnosed as caused by organic solvents, also including trichloroethylene.
David McBride, Associate Professor in Occupational and Environmental Medicine at University of Otago and expert on veterans' health, fears proving exposures won't be made easy for many people.
"There's supposed to be this enlightened benevolence principle approach to people who put their health at risk, and I think this is one of those cases. But you've got to know the process and once you get into the administrative process trying to sort these things out, it can be a nightmare."
Parkinson's New Zealand is now calling on the Government to support further research into the link between exposure to TCE in workplaces and the risk of developing Parkinson's.
"We need a better understanding of the number of workers who have been exposed to TCE in New Zealand workplaces," said Parkinson's New Zealand chief executive Deirdre O'Sullivan.
"This information is so important if we are to protect others from similar risks and if the people who have already been exposed to this solvent are to receive the best treatment and support."
Questions put to Health Minister David Clark and his ministry were referred to ACC, WorkSafe, and the Environmental Protection Authority.
Shadow Health Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman MP said he wasn't aware of TCE exposure links to Parkinson's until contacted by the Herald. He wanted more information and urged people to contact Dr Clark with concerns.
The potentially precedent-setting Navy veteran's decision was made on appeal to the independent Veterans' Entitlements Appeal Board and 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.
Those with Parkinson's exposed to TCE in the past who have spoken to the Herald are not 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.
But they want to investigate whether their TCE exposure brought on their Parkinson's and they would consider legal action.
A 56-year-old now living with Parkinson's who worked at the New Zealand Post Office's Newmarket workshops from 1979 to 1986 used TCE to clean electric motors.
"[It] was poured into a large blue plastic bucket, where the parts to be cleaned were immersed, and with my bare hands, I would clean the parts with a bristled brush," said the man who wants to remain anonymous.
"I consider myself to be a very private person and do not seek the limelight. But I feel that there should be accountability if there is a link between my Parkinson's Disease and my exposure to trichloroethylene, whilst employed by the NZ Post Office."