Paintshop solvents lead to nerve cell failure

Andrew McDonald explains the significance of a recent case that tested the link between exposure to lethal solvents and neurological conditions.

The case of the former RAF Corporal, who won a 17-year legal battle for compensation after being left with a devastating degenerative neurological condition caused by exposure to dangerous toxins at work, underlines the wider issues of the safety of workplace solvents and the difficulties with identifying them as the cause of some conditions.

Shaun Wood was diagnosed with Multiple System Atrophy-P (MSAP), a Parkinsonian condition that affects the nervous system, after exposure to a lethal cocktail of solvents as a painter and finisher at RAF sites across the world.

There is no cure for the condition, which has left the once extremely fit distance runner needing to use a wheelchair and to be cared for by his wife. There is little that he can do independently.

In Wood -v- Ministry of Defence, the High Court at the District Registry in Middlesbrough upheld Mr Wood’s claims that he was exposed to dangerous chemicals at work and that they caused his condition.

The judge described a “potentially lethal cocktail” of solvents, most significantly trichloroethylene and dichloromethane.

It was recognised in the 1960’s that high exposure to trichloroethylene could cause dizziness, lethargy, inebriation and visual disturbance. It has also been known since at least the 1960s that dichloromethane, in high concentrations, produces narcotic effects and may cause kidney and liver damage.

Yet it was these solvents, along with those with components including xylene ethanol, butan-2-one, butan-1-ol and white spirit, that Mr Wood was exposed to between 1987 and 1995 after he had been discharged from the RAF. Then he worked intensively on stripping and repainting aircraft and motor vehicles, especially in the run up to the first Gulf War in the early 1990s.

Feeling weak

Dichloromethane and trichloroethylene were once used as anaesthetics. In the painting and finishing environment they often left the men feeling weak, nauseous and dizzy. Shaun Wood commented that the thinner they used made him feel “drunk and wobbly causing a headache later.” However, it was not fully realised how much damage was being caused until the beginning of the 1990s.

Dichloromethane was banned in 2009 from use in paint strippers for consumers and many professionals because of the risks to health. According to the European Commission, between 1989 and 2007 there were 18 fatalities and 56 non-fatal injuries registered in the EU as a result of dichloromethane.

Victorian conditions

Working in what the judge described as “Victorian conditions”, Shaun Wood and his colleagues were given completely inadequate protection to the massive exposure to these solvents.

The work pressure was such that Mr Wood and his colleagues worked in excess of 12 hours per day, and sometimes up to 16 hours per day, to get through the volume of work that was expected of them. However, because Mr Wood and his colleagues were committed to serving their country, they got on with their jobs.

Mr Wood began to suffer a decline in his health when he was in his 30s and he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1993. He was medically discharged by the MoD in 1995.

Examinations by neurologists later revealed that he had Multiple System Atrophy, which is a Parkinsonian type condition associated with the degeneration of cells in the nervous system. He continues to suffer problems with balance, movement and other autonomic functions such as bladder control.

But the difficulty in proving that solvent exposure at work can cause such conditions is underlined by the comments of one doctor who examined Mr Wood. The doctors said: “interestingly he [Shaun Wood] was one of two painters and finishers at RAF Leeming in their 30s who presented with Parkinson’s disease at the same time. The possibility of some kind of exposure to toxins during their careers was looked into quite thoroughly and the final conclusion was that this was a coincidence.”

This, even though the onset of Parkinson’s disease is usually at around 65 years.

Mr Wood instructed Thompsons to pursue a claim for compensation against the MoD in 2007 after a third RAF painter successfully claimed compensation in Scotland.

He had previously enquired about receiving legal aid to pursue a claim for compensation but was unable to obtain legal representation. The MoD used the delay in bringing the claim as part of its defence, because the law generally only permits a claim to be brought within three years of the date of knowledge of the cause of the illness or injury.

Limitation dispute

The MoD said that Mr Wood did not have a case but that, if he did, he should have acted much more promptly.

However the High Court ruled in 2008 that he had acted promptly when he secured more information that supported his hypothesis that his condition was linked to his work and exposure to toxins.

A five-day trial subsequently took place in April. It addressed whether the MoD was in breach of the duty of care it owed to Mr Wood, the neurological condition he suffered from and whether there was a causal link between any such breach of duty of care and that condition.

It was revealed that the exposure levels of the said toxins were dramatically high, between 10 and 20 times the recommended maximum exposure levels.

On the fifth day of the trial, the MoD capitulated and conceded that it had breached its duty of care to Mr Wood in exposing him to the toxins and by failing to provide him with any adequate protective equipment or ventilation.

Although respirators and breathing apparatus were sometimes provided, they were usually inappropriate or inadequate, this leading to breaches of Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations.

Yet, despite the late admission, the MoD still failed to concede that exposure caused Mr Wood’s condition. The judge ruled that, while there was limited scientific evidence as to the effects of the toxins, this was largely because there were so few people who had been exposed to such toxins and at such high levels.

However, the judge found that it was known that exposure to toxins could cause damage to the brain. He said that, on the balance of probabilities, the toxins that Shaun Wood had been exposed to, particularly at such dangerously high levels, had caused the majority of his symptoms.

The MoD is seeking permission from the Court of Appeal to appeal the judgement on the basis that the lower court made an error of fact in finding that the claimant’s condition had been caused by solvent exposure. A decision on whether permission to appeal is to be granted is expected before the end of October 2010.



There has been particular difficulty in establishing a link between Parkinsonian syndromes and the exposure to high levels of toxins, for a variety of reasons.

Physicians are generally more interested in finding treatments than in enquiring about the causation of a disease and therefore they do not usually take detailed occupational histories. Further, neurologists in general regard these chronic, severe diseases as being primarily genetic or mysterious in origin.

As a result of not establishing the link, workers with symptoms are often sent back to work. Shaun Wood tried to return to work but often found himself feeling unusually tired and was eventually put on sick leave until he was discharged.

Another worker, also after being diagnosed with a Parkinsonian syndrome, was encouraged to go back to work until he had served for 12 years to ensure he received a good pension.