Disease claims more port workers

JIM CHIPP
Last updated 10:46 14/02/2013
Smith family
FAIRFAX NZ

Stuck down: Stu Smith and his family. Mr Smith has been diagnosed with motor neuron disease.

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The Wellingtonian

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More people associated with ports where log fumigation has occurred have come forward with neurological illnesses.

Last year The Wellingtonian reported on five cases of motor neuron disease associated with the Port of Nelson in 2005 and on a subsequent report by Canterbury University toxicologist Ian Shaw.

Professor Shaw found a way that low-level exposure to methyl bromide, which was used to fumigate logs at the port, could trigger motor neurone disease in some people.

A regional public health report the following year investigated those cases, and as well as a sixth, but determined they were a statistical anomaly, rather than evidence of a cause and effect relationship with methyl bromide exposure.

Stu Smith was diagnosed in September last year with motor neurone disease.

The 33-year-old Waipukurau sheep farmer was once a Wairarapa-Bush rep rugby player, and worked at the Port of Nelson for six months in 2005 while playing for Nelson Bays.

At the time, logs were being fumigated in the open at the port with methyl bromide.

Since the illnesses came to light the port has stopped the practice and has installed technology to recapture gas after use.

"It was a bit of a shock to the system," said Mr Smith, with slightly slurred speech.

"The worst thing for us was that we got told, 'Sorry, mate, you've got motor neurone disease - you've got two years'.

Mr Smith is married and the couple have three young children.

He said he could do only limited work on his farm because his arms felt heavy and weak.

"My hands have started to crinkle up. It's not good."

However, he blames no-one for his illness.

"You could say it's unfair, but it's the hand that you have been dealt.

"The blame game would be great to play, but there's no point playing it because they don't how or why," Mr Smith said.

All he could do was keep hoping the money and research being thrown at the disease would be able to help, he said.

Clare Allen is in her mid-50s and is in the late stages of the disease.

Although she said there were probably many causes of the illness she blamed methyl bromide from the Port of Wellington for hers.

She said she hoped to have a few more months to live.

She contacted The Wellingtonian using her specially-equipped smart phone.

"I have MND [motor neurone disease] and can't talk or move much so I'll get to the point. My one finger has little power for tapping this out.

"I lived on the outer part of Chaffers Marina for most of five years in the yacht Freedom while we fitted it out for ocean sailing.

"We were both extremely fit and healthy.

"We lived about as close to the log and car treatment area as a person can, with most common wind a NW [north- westerly], so I would say downwind of it.

"Our hatch faced it and was always open."

Her husband, Jon De Vries, died of a rare form of muscle cancer.

"I hope no-one else will have to get this nasty disease, which I think is linked to methyl bromide," she said.

Trevor Joy, of Maungaraki, died of motor neurone disease about five years ago, in his early 70s.

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His son, Terry, said he blamed his illness on exposure to methyl bromide.

"He was exposed while staying on his boat moored at Picton, while a ship containing logs that had been treated with methyl bromide was anchored nearby," Terry said.

Trevor was fit and healthy before his diagnosis, but died about six months later.

"It wasn't like he was already ailing," Terry said.

Ray Hancock lives on a boat at Picton waterfront, near the interisland ferry terminal.

He said he had been diagnosed with poisoning from methyl bromide once used to fumigate logs in the open there.

"I've lost all the strength in my legs," the 74-year-old said.

Before his illness he was fit and very healthy, and thought he would live forever.

Log fumigation has since been stopped at Picton.

We have already reported three other cases.

Rick Graham of Woburn died of motor neurone disease in 2007 after spending time inspecting imported cars at the port after they had been fumigated.

Ngaio resident Ian McGregor was a refrigeration engineer at Wellington's port.

He was diagnosed with motor neurone disease three years ago and now lives in a hospital.

Another Hutt man who worked with used cars after then left the wharf suffered grand mal epilepsy attacks.

At Wellington Port logs are fumigated under cover or in ship holds, but the used gas is released.

Motor neurone disease is a neurological disease that causes degeneration of certain brain and spinal-cord nerve cells.

Patients progressively lose muscle control and usually die within four years.

There is no cure or effective treatment.

- The Wellingtonian

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