Call for inquiry into allegations members of Defence Forces suffered due to toxic chemical exposure

By Joe Leogue
Irish Examiner Reporter

The Dáil is to consider establishing a special Oireachtas inquiry into claims that Defence Forces personnel suffered serious health consequences over decades as a result of toxic chemical exposure - allegations first revealed by the Irish Examiner.

In January 2017, this newspaper revealed how the Department of Defence had received a number of protected disclosures from whistleblowers who alleged serious shortcomings in how Air Corps maintenance staff were protected from their exposure to cancer-causing substances.

They believe these exposures could have caused the deaths and serious illnesses of former staff.

These whistleblowers also submitted a complaint to the Health and Safety Authority, who inspected conditions at Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel and threatened legal action against the Defence Forces unless it made improvements in how Air Corps staff are protected from the effects of the toxic chemicals.

Meanwhile, the State is defending seven personal injury claims from former Air Corps members who have been told by a toxico-pathologist that their chronic illnesses were caused by their exposure to chemicals used in the line of duty.

The Government first received protected disclosures from whistleblowers in December 2015, and an independent report on the claims found appropriate records to demonstrate the Air Corps compliance with health and safety standards “are not readily available.”

However, despite receiving that report in the summer of 2017, no subsequent action has been taken by the Government, nearly two years later.

One whistleblower has since announced his decision to retire early from the Air Corps, alleging he has not received assurances that he will not be targeted within the force for raising concerns - measures that are provided for under protected disclosure legislation.

Another whistleblower has said the Department of Defence has not contacted him over allegations that internal health and safety reports were deliberately destroyed by a named individual who denied the claim.

The Department has confirmed that these records cannot be found, and the Defence Forces have claimed the documents were “misplaced with the passage of time”.

Now opposition politicians have put their name to a motion calling for a Special Committee “to conduct relevant hearings into the matter of the health effects of toxic chemical exposure among Air Corps personnel, based on international evidence and a survey of former and serving Air Corps personnel, and provide a report and recommendations to the Dáil.”

It also calls for measures, including medical cards, to address the health needs of personnel that have been exposed to hazardous chemicals, and extend these measures to any civilians affected and to students who may be affected while on work experience”.

The Sinn Féin motion has also been backed by Fianna Fáil, Labour and independent TDs Mick Wallace and Clare Daly.

Sinn Féin Defence Spokesperson Aengus O’Snodaigh said there is international precedent for a health study of Defence Forces personnel.

“The aim of survey would be to try and quantify fully the scale and range of the health issue which they have linked to daily exposure to dangerous, corrosive and carcinogenic chemicals in areas of the Air Corps base,” he said.

“The State was aware of these concerns following a number of reports Health and Safety drafted as early as the 1990s which highlighted dangerous working conditions and chemical exposures in Casement Aerodrome which were not acted on.

Aengus O’Snodaigh
Aengus O’Snodaigh

“In Australia, a parliamentary inquiry was established in order to investigate the health and compensation concerns of RAF workers exposed to toxic chemicals in the maintenance of particular aircraft.

“This inquiry made a number of recommendations including a compensation scheme and enhanced healthcare for those affected.

In contrast this Government has dragged those affected through the courts, failed to publish relevant documents and has refused to answer all but the most basic questions in the Dáil on this issue.

“I am calling on all TDs to support this motion and help put pressure on the Government to ensure that action is taken to address the issues raised by whistleblowers and ensure that those affected receive the healthcare they need,” Mr O’Snodaigh said.

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