By Courtney Trenwith
The case of a former Qantas steward who believes he developed Parkinson's disease after repeated exposure to aircraft pesticide spray could have global implications
Governments that force airlines to spray pesticides in aeroplane cabins during long haul flights could face legal action if a landmark case in Australia is successful.
A former Qantas steward who believes he developed Parkinson's disease after repeated exposure to the pesticides is suing the Australian government, which mandates use of the sprays in all long haul flights into the country, including those operated by its Dubai-based alliance partner Emirates Airlines and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways.
The case could lead to air stewards around the world taking similar legal action if they are diagnosed with a motor neurone disease.
The Sydney neurosurgeon who diagnosed the former Qantas steward told him he was seeing "a lot" of cabin crew.
Brett Vollus, 52, worked for Australia's national carrier for 27 years as a flight attendant until his early-onset Parkinson's forced him to take redundancy in May this year, AFP reported.
"He has no family history of Parkinson's and he believes the Parkinson's has been caused by his exposure to the insecticide that he sprayed as a long-haul flight attendant on at least a fortnightly basis over a period of 17 years when working on board aircraft," Vollus’ lawyer Tanya Segelov told AFP.
"There is a link in the medical literature between Parkinson's and other motor neurone disease and insecticide, and that link is well established.”
The spraying was mandated by the Australian government on World Health Organisation guidelines to prevent the spread of insect-borne diseases such as malaria.
Known as "aircraft disinsection", such spraying has been an international practice since the 1920s and the first WHO directives on the subject were published in 1961.
Segelov, who won a landmark engine fumes suit in 2010 against a regional Australian airline on behalf of a flight attendant who suffered respiratory damage, said Vollus' case could have global implications.
"This is not an issue confined to Australia, and there are still countries that mandate this spraying as well," she said.
"Some Asian countries still do it, India definitely still does."
Australia's health department said its disinsection programme was in line with WHO requirements and all products used had been assessed as safe, both internationally and by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority.
"The WHO has found no evidence that disinsection sprays, when used according to their guidelines and manufacturers' instructions, are harmful to human health," a department spokesman told AFP.
The Australian Transport Workers' Union said it would consider filing a class action on behalf of the nation's aircraft workers if a health link could be established with insecticides, urging anyone with such concerns to come forward.
Segelov said Vollus' case would hinge on whether the government knew, or should have known, of the potential risks to cabin crew.
The lawyer said practices had since evolved to allow spraying to take place once the aircraft was empty and in a hangar, and for the personnel carrying it out to wear protective gear.
"As I understand it from looking at the World Health Organisation requirements that option has always been available," she said.
"From the research I've done I think (the Australian government) were the ones that made the decision to spray on board the planes and they did it in such a way with no protection was offered to my client - he had a can in each hand, he couldn't even cover his mouth."