Delta Flight: A Ticket To Parkinson’s

Editor’s note: A few months ago, I wrote an article for Truthout entitled, Pesticides on Planes: How Airlines Are Softly Killing Us. It shed light on the routine spraying of chemicals on certain commercial planes, sometimes with passengers still on board. What are the cumulative effects of this practice, called “disinsection,” on frequent flyers and airline employees?

It cost one former Delta Air Lines employee his health. After working for Delta less than two years, Chris Ott was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s disease. Many would argue correlation doesn’t mean causation, but the evidence in Ott’s case is compelling and disturbing.

As a Delta customer service support agent, Ott’s primary responsibility was cleaning aircraft for quick turnaround departures, a process exposing him and his coworkers to a number of toxic chemicals, including frequently sprayed pesticides.

Parkinson’s, Pesticides, and Planes

Parkinson’s disease (PD) occurs when nerve cells in the substantia nigra region of the brain are damaged or destroyed and can no longer produce dopamine, a nerve-signaling molecule that helps control muscle movement.

People with PD have a variety of symptoms, including loss of muscle control, trembling, and lack of coordination. They may also experience anxiety, constipation, dementia, depression, urinary difficulties, and sleep disturbances. Symptoms intensify over time.

At least one million Americans have PD, and about 50,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. Since fewer than one percent of cases are caused by genetics, researchers continue to search for risk factors for developing Parkinson’s. Repeatedly, the epidemiological and toxicological evidence identify exposure to , as well as specific gene-pesticide interactions, as significant adverse risk factors contributing to PD.

Over a decade of evidence shows a clear association between pesticide exposure and a higher risk for Parkinson’s disease, the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s. A new study published in Neurology proposes a potential mechanism by which at least some specific pesticides may contribute to Parkinson’s.

Research in 2000 confirmed and presumed pesticide exposure increases the risk of PD. Subsequent work supported this connection, including a study in 2006 that followed patients for nine years. The patients exposed to pesticides had a 70 percent higher incidence of PD when the study ended.

Was that what happened to Chris Ott? After reading his story, you be the judge.

‘My life has not been the same since working at Delta Airlines.’

“For 33 years I’ve lived in West Palm Beach, Florida, where I relocated from Maryland fresh out of high school. Initially I performed several odd jobs until I went to work for Delta Air Lines as a customer service support agent.

“My primary duty was to clean aircraft for quick turnaround departures. For instance, each day there was a direct Delta flight from JFK to West Palm Beach arriving at 4:10 p.m. and returning to JFK at 4:45 p.m. The 35-minute ground time was crazy, since all the West Palm Beach passengers had to deplane, the cabin had to be cleaned, and the JFK passengers had to board—all before 4:45 p.m.

“I dealt with baggage-handling, freight, and liquor control, all of which required movement in and around the aircraft. A typical shift required servicing at least 10 aircraft. The degree of cleaning depended on schedule, with the midnight shift reserved for in-depth cleaning.

“In 2009, after working for Delta for more than a year and a half, I was officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, or more specifically, early onset Parkinson’s disease. To say the least, I was devastated. My symptoms were predominantly on the right side of my body and remain that way, but have recently started to migrate to my left side as well. The most notable symptoms are that my right arm remains stiff while I walk, and I no longer can use my right hand to write. Other symptoms include what are known as facial pulls, where my mouth puckers uncontrollably, and problems swallowing and speaking. I often feel like someone beat me with a bat, as my muscles ache for long periods of time. The list goes on, but these symptoms remain constant in my daily life.

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“I always felt Delta lacked in the area of protecting employees on the job. For example, it didn’t provide protective gloves to employees who cleaned bathrooms, galleys, or for that matter, toilet seats.

“I believe the frequent and lengthy times I spent working in the interior cabins of numerous planes exposed me to toxic chemicals, including insecticides, used in the aircraft on a regular basis. Who knows what levels of chemicals were confined within each aircraft? Airplanes are designed to keep air in, so it would follow that the levels were high.

“Another area where I had a major concern was the disposal of lavatory waste. Delta failed to provide sufficient protective gear for workers. I know, I was “dumped on,” as they called it, whereby the waste content of two bathrooms beat down on my chest and covered my entire body. I squished when I walked. Delta expected me to continue my shift. I declined, went home, got in the tub, and poured alcohol all over my body.

“Employees didn’t question these types of incidents because the majority of us were young, naïve, and desperately wanted to make it to full-time status with benefits. Because of this, I accepted a position as a maintenance utility agent working in the aircraft hangers in Atlanta.

“I’ll never forget what happened my first day on the job. I was taken to an area that housed what I would describe as cement pools filled with acid. A group of men stood around the pool and washed aircraft parts in the acid using a brush. They wore gloves and protective shields in front of their faces. All the men had boils on their necks directly below the bottom of their face guards.

“That was the kicker for me. I excused myself and waited around for HR personnel to show up for work. Eventually I met with a rep and told him my concerns, to which he responded, “Are you sure you want to give up a career with Delta?”

“Before my official diagnosis of early onset Parkinson’s disease in 2010, I was seen by nine different neurologists in the South Florida area, from whom I received variously alarming diagnoses, including:

  • Shy-Drager syndrome
  • Focal dystonia
  • Segmented dystonia
  • I don’t know what you have
  • I’m puzzled
  • Parkinsonism
  • You have nothing wrong

“It wasn’t until my meeting with a University of Utah neurologist who specializes in neurologic movement disorders, that I received an official diagnosis of Parkinson’s, with ‘110-percent certainty.’”

“How has my disease affected my life? I lost my career as an executive at one of the largest private universities in South Florida. My income dropped drastically, from over 10k per month to 2k per month. I live with my brother and his family, something I—nor they—ever expected.

“I received the most devastating news several years ago. My doctor recommended a specialized scan of my brain that would disclose information about disease progression and the levels of dopamine in my brain. The next day the chief of radiology called me at my house to convey his amazement at my scan results. He said my brain had undergone a substantial loss of dopamine. Over his 20-year career, he said, he had never seen such a profound decline.

“The long and short of it is that I fully support a class action lawsuit against Delta Air Lines for their negligent acts and omissions in protecting its employees from harmful insecticide chemicals. I believe Delta should compensate me for my pain and suffering and loss of a sizable income.”

What do you think? Do you have a similar story? Share your experiences and insights in the comments section below.

Christopher Ott would often apply to the various airlines hoping that he could be successful in attaining his life long dream of working in the aviation industry.Today, his condition continues to deteriorate at a slow but steady pace.

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