Hundreds of New Zealanders may have been affected by a toxic chemical in a wide range of workplaces, a Weekend Herald investigation has found.
The discovery follows a landmark compensation pay-out to a New Zealand navy veteran who proved links between exposure to the solvent during his military service and his Parkinson's disease.
The Herald reported last month that Veterans Affairs has provided the ex-serviceman with an entitlement to disability compensation for Parkinson's, a condition attributed to his exposure to trichloroethylene (TCE) while degreasing and cleaning electronics on a Royal New Zealand Navy ship during the 1948-1960 Malayan Emergency.
The Weekend Herald has since tracked down other men who fear their handling of TCE in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s could 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 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.
"Trichlo was strong enough to bowl you over," said 65-year-old Steve Walker, an ex-New Zealand Post Office employee at the Balclutha exchange, who now struggles with Parkinson's. "It seeped into your skin, into your clothes. It took over you completely."
Dave Schafer, a 58-year-old who used TCE weekly while cleaning instruments on Navy frigates during a five-year apprenticeship at the Devonport naval base, said: "Holy cow, that stuff was powerful. But as apprentices you kept your mouth shut and did your job, you didn't rock the boat."
Parkinson's New Zealand, the Returned and Services' Association (RSA), and those spoken to by the Weekend Herald, all believe there will be many more New Zealanders - hundreds if not thousands - who have been exposed to TCE over the years.
"Researchers have suggested there could be a significant lag time between exposure to TCE and the onset of Parkinson's," said Parkinson's New Zealand chief executive Deirdre O'Sullivan.
"As such, we have reason to believe there could be many more serving and/or ex-serving NZDF people in a similar situation to this veteran."
The potentially precedent-setting Navy veteran's decision was made on appeal to the independent Veterans' Entitlements Appeal Board, which considered appeals against decisions made under the War Pensions Act 1954.
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 RSA, which has advocated for veterans sickened by environmental exposures, including those from radiation exposure and Agent Orange, 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 were 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.
"Essentially 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 client 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," an ACC spokesman said.
In April, WorkSafe recommended changes to the rules around use of TCE in New Zealand workplaces.
A spokesman for WorkSafe confirmed those changes have since been implemented in its latest version of workplace exposure standards. Workers who use the industrial solvent are now tested for trichloracetic acid in their urine at the end of the working week to ensure their health hasn't been compromised.
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".
Kevin Griffiths was first introduced to "trike" after starting an aircraft engineers' apprenticeship at Air New Zealand in Christchurch in 1974.
He dipped engine parts into large baths of heated TCE regularly over a 4-5 year period.
"You couldn't help but smell it. The vapour would rise about two-feet above the bath," said the 61-year-old who was diagnosed with Parkinson's aged 35.
"We'd drop them down on a hook, pull it out after about 5-10 seconds, and you'd be left with a nice clean engine part. They used to send the apprentices down the hole to clean out the bath. I remember a few guys saying that stuff's not too good but you didn't think too much about it."
An Air New Zealand spokeswoman said TCE is used as a cleaning agent at one it its engineering facilities by a few trained employees who observe strict protocols.
"We welcome the opportunity to speak with Mr Griffiths about his concerns and will reach out to him to facilitate this," she said.
Griffiths, Walker, Schafer and others who have come forward in the last six weeks, have vowed to dig further to discover whether their TCE exposure brought on their Parkinson's. Some are even considering legal action.
"It would be nice to have some accountability, not just for me but for others," Schafer said.
"Life for me is very hard. All of my old senior technicians and supervisors will be dead now, but they would've worked with it for donkeys years and it does beg a question, how might it have affected them too."
The New Zealand Post Office was split into three state-owned enterprises in 1987 including Telecom NZ which later formed Chorus as its network infrastructure division before spinning it off.
A spokesman for Chorus, which now owns the Balclutha Telephone Exchange building, said they would be happy to meet with Walker and discuss his personal circumstances.
"Our initial review shows that we had clear guidance around usage of trichloroethylene and that it was completely phased out in 1985 but clearly we need to conduct further investigation," he said.
Handling toxic chemicals 'just part of the job'
Every week, for 15 years, Steve Walker handled trichloroethylene as a New Zealand Post Office telephone exchange technician. No gloves or masks. No safety briefings or training courses. And it was often used in small, confined PABX (private automatic branch exchanges) rooms with little or no ventilation.
Based at the Balclutha exchange from 1969 to 1984, Walker took bottles of trichloroethylene (TCE), or trichlo, tricho, or trike, as the technicians called the potent solvent with fumes "strong enough to bowl you over", and applied it liberally to a hand-held tool to clean switching terminals.
"We'd tip the trichlo around, spilling it on to ourselves, with no safety measures at all, other than you were to try and not breathe too much in," says Walker, now 65 and living in Christchurch with Parkinson's disease.
"The smell was enough to nauseate you for the rest of the day. I'd be cleaning in there for days on end, it worked brilliantly too. When you started feeling dizzy, you'd go outside for a breath of fresh air.
"It could irritate the skin something shocking, and never get it on your eyes. It seeped into your skin, into your clothes. It took over you completely."
Walker tried not to inhale the noxious fumes but found it unavoidable.
"Otherwise you'd never get the job done, and the attitude in those days was, you just do what you're told."
Walker was diagnosed with Parkinson's eight years ago. The debilitating disease cost him a marriage, his business, home, income, and ability to play his beloved guitar.
"I was basically left with nothing," he says.
Walker read the Herald article last month that revealed the navy veteran's compensation victory after proving TCE exposure contributed to his Parkinson's.
Now, he wants to know whether he has similar grounds for compensation.
"It appears there's a proven linkage between TCE and Parkinson's, and so I'll have a shot at it," he said.
"I want to explore it but anything I get out of it will go back into Parkinson's research."
What is Parkinson's disease
•A progressive neurodegenerative condition that occurs when insufficient quantities of the chemical dopamine are produced by the brain.
•Caused by insufficient quantities of dopamine - a chemical in the brain which enables well co-ordinated movement.
•One in 500 New Zealanders has Parkinson's.
•Average age for diagnosis is 59. Many New Zealanders are diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson's in their 30s and 40s.
•The main motor symptoms of Parkinson's are tremor (shaking), stiffness and rigidity, slowness of movement (bradykinesia). Other symptoms can include changes in mood and anxiety, poor balance and altered speech.
- Anyone needing information or support could contact Parkinson's New Zealand on 0800 473 463 or www.parkinsons.org.nz