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Michael J. Fox and the Parkinson’s cluster

By Murray Bourne, 13 Sep 2007

Here is another unusual disease cluster. Michael J. Fox most likely contracted Parkinson’s disease in the late 1970s while working on a TV series in his native Canada. Intriguingly, 4 other members of the crew also contracted Parkinson’s.

According to this NY Times article, Parkinson’s ’Clusters’ Getting a Closer Look:

The four people worked together from 1976 to 1980, when it is possible that the disease began in all of them.

Probability about 1 in 1,000

After studying the cluster:

Dr. Donald Calne, director of the neurodegenerative disorders center at the University of British Columbia, estimates that the odds of the four cases occurring at the same time in such a small group of people are less than 1 in 1,000.

Some of the reasoning behind this conclusion:

Typically, Parkinson’s disease afflicts one in 300 people. In people as young as Michael J. Fox, 30 when the disease was diagnosed in 1991, the illness is much rarer. Fewer than 5 percent of Parkinson’s patients develop symptoms before age 50, said Dr. Caroline Tanner of the Parkinson’s Institute. The Vancouver cluster includes Mr. Fox and a woman who learned she had Parkinson’s at age 38.

[...] Parkinson’s progresses gradually, taking 5 to 10 years from the time it starts to the appearance of the first symptoms -- usually, rigidity in an arm or leg or tremor in a hand.

A Possible Cause

There is speculation that some environmental agent was the cause of this cluster. One possibility is a drug, since:

There are three classes of drugs that are likely to produce Parkinsonism:

1. Dopamine receptor blocking agents, including the phenothiazines (such as Compazine, Stelazine, and Thorazine), butyrophenones (such as Haldol), and metoclopramide (Reglan).
2. Dopamine-depleting agents, including reserpine (rarely used) and tetrabenazine (used to control dyskinesia)
3. Drugs that act by various known and unknown mechanisms, including the atypical antipsychotic drugs such as Resperidal, Orap, and Zyprexa). (Source: PDcaregiver.)

There have been cases of drug addicts who have taken a badly ’cooked’ dose and have had Parkinson’s-like symptoms.

Other environmental factors in Parkinson’s include weedkillers and pesticides (from MSNBC, no longer available):

One study shows that farm workers who used the common weedkiller Paraquat had two to three times the normal risk of Parkinson’s, a degenerative brain disease that eventually paralyzes patients.

Connection with the ABC Breast Cancer Cluster

This story reminds me of the breast cancer cluster in the ABC television studios in Brisbane Australia, which I wrote about recently. In that case, the probability of the cluster was estimated to be 1 in a million, but I have not been able to find out how that probability was reached.

Higher Risk of Parkison’s

Something that worries me is that those at higher risk of contracting Parkinson’s Disease are teachers (that’s me) and medical workers. Other high risk occupations include farm workers, loggers and miners.


Curiously, in one trial, Gambling and sex addiction caused by Parkinson’s drug, we read:

Apparently after taking the drugs, called dopamine agonists, some patients have developed gambling habits so severe, that some of them lost more than £100,000 in six months,while others developed behavioural problems, including compulsive eating, increased alcohol consumption, and an insatiable appetite for sex.

Comments are off for this post.

29 Comments on “Michael J. Fox and the Parkinson’s cluster”

  1. Li-sa says:

    If you can read Chinese: 「物以類聚」(Those of the same group cluster)?

  2. Alan Cooper says:

    Here (unlike the ABC case), the researcher, Dr Calne, does correctly describe the probability that he is talking about, and if I was in such a cluster or responsible for public safety in the region where it occurred I would certainly want to check for possible causes.

    But the world does include several thousand groups of similar size (even including equally famous individuals), and there are also many rare diseases whose increase would attract attention, so, even given the one-in-a-thousand probability, I would not be surprised to hear of several stories like this even if there were no non-chance causes involved.

  3. Murray says:

    Thanks for your comment, Alan.

    I'm still thinking about that gambling addiction linked to dopamine agonists. Is it possible that all addictions involve an environmental chemical imbalance?

  4. Janice R. England says:

    Has there been research of previous land-use of the studios in Vancouver and Brisbane to determine if they were built on old dumpsites? It's possible that the environmental cause of the illnesses is buried beneath the ground. Studies have linked serious illnesses to exposure to cancer-causing chemicals present in most closed dumps (landfills).
    The high rate of Parkinson's disease among teachers may be the result of building many schools on top of toxic waste dumps. Contact our organization for more information.
    Janice R. England
    People Investigating Toxic Sites
    [email protected]

  5. Murray says:

    Hi Janice and thanks for the input.

    I'm not aware of any studies into the previous land use of the sites involved, but what you suggest is certainly plausible.

    I checked out your You may wish to add the example from Armidale (my hometown in Australia) to your list of home sites built on waste sites. A housing development was built on a disused timber pole impregnation plant. It took 3 years to resolve the legal wranglings.

  6. Janice R. England says:

    I will add you hometown to our list. Thank you for the link. Were there illnesses from exposure to chemicals in the dump? Was groundwater contaminated?
    I continue to be surprised and disappointed that historical research is overlooked in many environmental investigations. A title search needs to be conducted on the studio property where Michael J. Fox and at least four other members of cast and crew were diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Research of old maps of the area would also be helpful in finding previous land-use. Does anyone know exact location of the studio?
    [email protected]

  7. Rjones says:

    One outside vector that has the highest probability of causing this is the borreliosis spirochete.
    Where did they get it? Tics. Michael J Fox was diagnosed with Lyme Disease before Parkinsons. Current medical research points to a chronic low grade infection of the central nervous system.

    This manifests in various ways depending on part of brain.

    These patients are rarely given the correct diagnosis, when they do develop neuro issues years later they are labeled
    MS, Parkinson's, Dementia etc. Basically diseases with no known cause. The cause in many cases is a chronic infection. When Treated with IV antibiotics they generally improve.

    None of the neuro degenerative diseases are treated this way. They are treating the symptoms of decreased dopamine and not the source which is infectious.
    Michael J Fox and cast were in an endemic region for lyme.
    It is not unlikely that some of the cast members were bitten and infected.

    Many times lyme is treated with short term orals and if done early usually works. If the infection goes on longer where its in the CNS the orals will not kill them all.

    This particular spirochete (bacterium) seems to be able to evade the host immune system. It is slow growing compared to other bacteria which might explain why symptoms come on very gradually and tend to wax and wayne. It can mimic many other more common entities.

    I believe Michale J Fox and cast suffer from post lyme syndrome or AKA neuro borreliosis.

    I do not know if they have been treated for this. If I were one of them I would get the appropriate labs done by someone who specializes in this. One would think an infectious disease doctor would be the first choice, but its actually the last choice.

  8. Murray says:

    Thanks for the insights, Rjones.

  9. Rjones says:

    Anytime! Medicine moves at a snails pace, one would think this information would be more mainstream but it is not.

    In maybe 15 years or more, we will be testing all so called autoimmune diseases for an infectious etiology before giving it a label of a disease of UNKNOWN cause. There is a cause.

  10. dENISE says:

    I am being treated for lyme after many yrs of various symptoms. Mostly on and off muscualr issues. 10 months ago I began w respiratory then neurological issues. Memory loss, speech slurring, problems focusing, burning eyes, panic attacks. I am being givenoral anti biotics since Nov. 2009. I wasn't diagnosed from June - Nov. june is when the respiratory part started. Don't know if I had this 1 yr or 10 yrs. Do people believe one CAN get better with intra venous after this long of a time, or CAN oral anti-biotics work? What about homeopathy? Alternative therapies? Pleas comment.. thanks, praying to feel good again... DEE

  11. People Investigating Toxic Sites says:

    It sounds like chemicals in the environment may have caused your illness. Where were you living and working (or going to school) when you first had symptoms? Are you still living in the same location? I'd like to check our files and see if we have information that may be helpful in finding what caused your health problems.

  12. joy says:

    I urge everyone to see the documentary "Under Our Skin" and read the book "Cure Unknown". Is it MS? ALS? Parkinson's? Rheumatoid Arthritis? Lupus? Crohn's? etc.- all diseases with NO Known cause. Or is it LYME DISEASE!!!

  13. K whoriskey says:

    I was diagnosed with parkinsons at age of 30 I had the the condition at the age of 24 and they diagnosed me 6 years later.... My question is I became sick or ill from working in a foundry working with molten aluimuim fumes and many other chemical fumes could this have caused me parkinsons so young? As it doesn't run in my family history

  14. Murray says:

    Hi K. It appears aluminum can be "associated" with higher risk of Parkinson's disease but many of these things are difficult to "prove". All the best to you.

  15. k whoriskey says:

    ive being doing alot of research on the link with aluimuim fumes and parkinsons and found out alot of interesting things i was in a work enviroment where the fumes lingered everywere and there was no extraction fans to get rid of these fumes so we were breathing these fumes all day long and in my case for five years and now ive parkinsons ....Health effects of aluminum
    Aluminum is one of the most widely used metals and also one of the most frequently found compounds in the earth's crust. Due to these facts, aluminum is commonly known as an innocent compound. But still, when one is exposed to high concentrations, it can cause health problems. The water-soluble form of aluminum causes the harmful effects, these particles are called ions. They are usually found in a solution of aluminum in combination with other ions, for instance as aluminum chlorine.

    The uptake of aluminum can take place through food, through breathing and by skin contact. Long lasting uptakes of significant concentrations of aluminum can lead to serious health effects, such as:

    - Damage to the central nervous system
    - Dementia
    - Loss of memory
    - Listlessness
    - Severe trembling

    Aluminum is a risk in certain working environments, such as mines, where it can be found in water. People that work in factories where aluminum is applied during production processes may endure lung problems when they breathe in aluminum dust. Aluminum can cause problems for kidney patients when it enters the body during kidney dialyses.
    Inhalation of finely divided aluminum and aluminum oxide powder has been reported as a cause of pulmonary fibrosis and lung damage. This effect, know as Shaver’s Disease, is complicated by the presence in the inhaled air of silica and oxides of iron. May also be implicated in Alzheimer’s disease.

  16. Murray says:

    Thanks for the interesting update. Makes you wonder how many more such links will be found with other seemingly "innocent" compounds.

  17. k whoriskey says:

    hello i got a hair and urine anaylis done and it just shows i was rite all along to blame the foundry i worked it because ive six rampantly high levels of toxic elements and some of them are known causes of parkinsons ive manganese levels which are 10 times over the limit and copper, iron, lead, mercury, nickel and im in contact with a group of researchers whom i sent my results too and they said my illness is due toxicity......... i knew this all along ....

  18. jonny rocket says:

    i heard there was some bad cocaine cut with something weird from china. all the people that he worked with in canada all got the same coke. seriously.

  19. BOBF says:

    I find it interesting why they did not investigate the tic connection. MJ Fox already admitted to having Lyme on David Letterman, this was years before the Parkinsons.

    Lyme was discovered the same way in a cluster setting. A cluster of kids with RA (R. Arthritis) appeared. They investigated and found the bug.

    Late stage lyme can look like many things it depends on which part of the body is effected. It looks like autoimmune but its just the immune system going after the bug. Its low grade so it takes you slowly over time.

    Not hard to do a draw and PCR on the 5 people in his cast.

    It won't happen now, he is making big money for Parkinson.
    That research is not looking at the infectious causes, its looking at early detection etc.

  20. R Caton says:

    I had heard that Michael Fox's Parkinson's was Toxin-induced and it was believed to be from carbon monoxide. Is this true? I am a former teacher that taught in an old trailer that had a faulty furnace. The furnace was not fixed (even after attempts? by administration) so I was exposed throughout most of the year. I later developed Sec. Parkinson approx. 10 years after exposure. I have gait & balance issues, jaw dystonia, dystonia in my legs and feet, cognitive problems, and spatial concept issues etc. I noticed that Michael chews a lot of gum constantly. Does he have a lot of jaw pain? Carbon monoxide would make sense if all the workers stayed in the same trailer or building on the set while making the movie. It is a known cause and everyone is exposed who stays in the trailer or building on the set. People don't understand the danger and long-term consequences of CO exposure. It would be a great opportunity to educate people and help other CO- Sec. Parkinson victims. If you get on the CO blogs, a lot of people don't know what they have and they are begging for help. I have had a hard time just finding a neurologist to help me. I broke 5-6 teeth before he was finally convinced that I had jaw dystonia. so now I get botox to help stop the contractions and rigidity in my jaw. There is still a lot that the doctors don't know about the effects and I haven't found an expert yet where I live.

  21. Murray says:

    @R Caton: Thanks for sharing your story. Any environment where the proportions of CO, CO2, SO2, lead etc are too high can have catastrophic results.

  22. RAJOD says:

    Yes it is possible bad coke, CO, heavy metal poisoning to be a cause.

    Remember there were four of them. I do not know if they all hung out in same trailor sucking up carbon monoxide, most movie stars use them and well I don't see a epidemic of movie stars with trailer induced Parkinsons.

    Michael J fox did test positive for the bacteria that is know to cause his exact symptoms. I don't know if they ever bother to test the others.

    If you suspect heavy metals that is not hard to test. I do not know if they all were tested for this.

    Also the Dr. Donald Calne, is definitely not a statistician and really does not have a clue on the probability or even the DDX on the cause.

    1 out of 300, hmm well even if that number is correct its not the correct number for that age group. That number is closer to 1 in 6,000.

    Then when you factor in that it was 4 at same time, that 1 in 6000 is much higher. Probably closer to 1 in 100,000 or more.

    Then to focus on just a few drug induced causes (not stats given on those) and not heavy metal, viral, bacteria etc.

    Well I take that Drs. Opinion with a grain of salt.

  23. Janice England says:

    Has there been a property title search of the studio to find past ownership and help determine if the property is contaminated from previous land-use?

  24. RAJOD says:

    I doubt they looked very hard into this very rare and public cluster. Why look for the cause when you can treat the symptoms forever? They have done wonders for Fox, have you seen him recently?

  25. Do You have Any Interest in Seeing MJ Fox and His Misfiring Brain on TV? - Page 4 says:

    […] the normal risk of Parkinson’s, a degenerative brain disease that eventually paralyzes patients. 0 Replies   GA_googleFillSlot("a2kTopicLeaderboardEnd"); […]

  26. ChemE says:


    I am a chemical engineer, I have 2 years of stats in Florida pointing to microwave transmission radars damaging biology. Look at the building Michael Fox was working in, it has 6 or 7 radar dishes pointed over it

  27. Jeffrey says:


    You would have to show a relation between your stats and the location at which the actors were supposedly exposed in order for to correlate.

  28. Bruce says:

    There is a comment above saying that maybe all the cast members got a bad batch of cocaine. In the late 70's I've heard that certain batches of drugs contained MPTP. Is it possible that MPTP could have caused Michael's Parkinson's ? (Look MPTP up on Wikipedia.)

  29. Laura says:

    Has anyone looked into a link between Parkinson's, and both climates and occupations associated with insufficient sunlight/vitamin D levels? While living in Pacific NW we heard of multiple cases of Parkinson's, also consistent with a higher incidence among logging in that region, as well as miners and others whose livelihoods keep them out of sunlight during working hours all year.


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