Delay, deny, and die: The official response to Air Corps chemical exposure fears

A group of former Air Corps personnel protests outside the office of Junior Defence Minister Paul Kehoe. Picture : Alex Murphy

The Dáil is set to debate the establishment of a special committee to conduct hearings into the possible health effects of toxic chemical exposure among Air Corps personnel, after two years of revelations in the Irish Examiner, with TDs expected to back the investigation before the summer. Joe Leogue looks at what has brought us to this point.

Later this Dáil term, opposition politicians will back 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 move comes years after whistleblower allegations, court cases, and revelations in this newspaper that have prompted many questions.

There are some who believe those in positions of power are happy to leave those questions unanswered.

Those who believe that Air Corps technicians are seriously ill because they suffered undue exposure to harmful chemicals while working in Casement Aerodrome say the Government response to their concerns can be summed up by “three Ds”.

Delay. Deny. Die.

Delay any meaningful investigation into their claims; deny there is an issue; and finally, wait for these sick troublemakers to die and stop rocking the boat.

Truth be told, nothing the Government — or successive ministers for defence — have done in recent years would dispel anyone of that notion.

In fact, the State’s indifferent approach to this matter only reinforces the belief that yet again, whistle-blowers in this country are seen as an annoyance to be ignored at best, and at worst victimised.

It is the mounting frustration at this inaction that has prompted Sinn Féin to propose its motion, and for other opposition parties to indicate they will back the inquiry.

Delay

It is now over three years since whistleblowers lifted the lid on issues in Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel.

Five years have passed since the first personal injury claim against the State was lodged in the High Court.

It is three years since whistleblowers lifted the lid on issues at Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel, but inaction at official level has followed.

The Irish Examiner reports that first highlighted these issues were published over two years ago.

With some exceptions, very little progress has been made in addressing the concerning matters at the heart of this scandal in the intervening period.

Writing in this newspaper last year, columnist Michael Clifford noted how there are two categories of inquiry frequently undertaken by a State agency or government organ.

“The standard inquiry is designed to find out whether something went wrong, how it happened, and who may be responsible,” he wrote.

“The other category frequently used, we shall refer to as the Mickey Mouse inquiry. This is designed to respond to a controversy.

“Turning over stones and digging for information is not the primary function of a Mickey Mouse inquiry.

“Instead, the main focus is to present the inquiry as an exhibit to show that something, anything, is being done,” he said.

Mr Clifford was referring to an inquiry into allegations by a Prison Service whistle-blower and recalled the initial attempts to “investigate” issues raised by Sergeant Maurice McCabe.

But he could easily have been referring to the lip service the Government has paid to serious allegations raised by Air Corps whistle-blowers, some ex-Defence Forces, and one still serving.

For example, three years have passed since one of the whistleblowers told the Department of Defence that health and safety reports that raised concerns about conditions in Baldonnel were destroyed in a bid to cover up how much the authorities knew about the hazardous working environment.

Not once in the past three years has the department asked that whistleblower for any further information on that allegation.

In fact, the department didn’t even look for the documents in question until over a year after it received the protected disclosure — and even then, it only did so because Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh raised the allegations in the Dáil.

The department looked for the reports and, lo and behold, they can’t be found.

That documents that have allegedly been destroyed as part of a cover-up now can’t be found might set alarm bells ringing with some people. But not with Junior Defence Minister Paul Kehoe.

Mr Kehoe asked the Defence Forces why the reports can’t be found. The Defence Forces told him they think they were misplaced, but they’re not sure.

He is happy to take this answer at face value, and has ruled out any independent investigation. Nothing to see here.

Meanwhile, aware of the optics of doing absolutely nothing, the minister went about commissioning an inquiry into the other whistleblower allegations of unsafe working conditions.

Christopher O’Toole was appointed to look into some — but not all — allegations made by whistleblowers.

His report did nothing to contradict the claims made by the whistleblowers but, through no fault of his own, Mr O’Toole did little to shed light on the situation.

Early on in his report, he warned that he was “not in a position to consider the substances in use or any implications for human health arising from such use as these issues are outside my competence”.

“Having considered the allegations made by the three informants, it is my view that a review of the kind envisaged by the terms of reference set out above is impractical and I therefore can only comment in general terms on the safety regime,” he said.

But his report does contain one key line: “A problem has arisen in relation to the issues raised by the three informants because appropriate records to demonstrate compliance are not readily available.”

Records that demonstrate a lack of compliance do exist, however.

In 2015, the whistleblowers also tipped off the Health and Safety Authority, which inspected Baldonnel and found the protections for those working with chemicals were lacking.

It threatened legal action against the Air Corps unless it implemented changes — and its recommendations included the most basic health and safety measures, such as providing protective clothing and equipment for workers.

But the more significant documentation came from within the Air Corps itself. It admitted that it may not have done enough to protect staff from exposure to a cancer-causing chemical so dangerous the Defence Forces ceased using it in 2007.

In 2014, with the State facing legal action from former technicians, the Air Corps conducted internal investigations into its own track record.

The Irish Examiner has previously revealed the findings of the Air Corps’ own report on its use of Triklone N, a vapour degreaser used to clean engine parts, that contains trichloroethylene, a known carcinogen.

The dangers of trichloroethylene, or TCE, are so significant that the Environmental Protection Agency in the US has earmarked it to be banned in vapour degreasing and as an aerosol degreaser.

In New Zealand, an ex-navy serviceman received compensation for Parkinson’s after his condition was linked with his use of TCE.

Last year, Samsung apologised to workers in its facilities who developed fatal illnesses after they were exposed to TCE and other chemicals also used by the Irish Air Corps.

As for its own use of TCE, the Air Corps itself admitted:

  • No records show that personal protective equipment was made available to staff
  • No records exist suggesting that any training on the dangers of using Triklone N took place
  • Work areas were not segregated and doors to adjoining areas were left open
  • Workers’ tea room and meeting areas were located in an adjoining area, raising the risk of food being contaminated
  • Workers’ clothes could have been contaminated as lockers were located in the immediate area where the chemical was used
  • No records exist that indicate the extractor fans in use in the workshop were adequate for ventilating the area

The report also raises concerns about a heater in the engine assembly area, which it states would have caused a risk of contaminating other areas of the same building by circulating the chemical.

The report concludes with the following: “The question posed should be: Was everything reasonably practicable done to ensure personnel safety and health at the time?”

However, despite being tasked with examining the Air Corps’ safety record, Mr O’Toole was never given a copy of this report by the Air Corps.

Mr Kehoe has told the Dáil that the report is legally privileged as part of the State’s defence against the cases taken by the ill former workers.

We are in a situation whereby a reviewer tasked with investigating whether workers in the Air Corps were unduly exposed to dangerous chemicals was denied access to a report that says workers in the Air Corps may have been unduly exposed to dangerous chemicals.

A quick search on KildareStreet.com shows Kehoe has used the phrase “the health and welfare of the men and women of the Defence Forces is a high priority for me” some 60 times in speeches and answers to parliamentary questions in the past two and a half years.

His actions lack the urgency to support such an oft-repeated claim.

Mr Kehoe has sat on the findings of the O’Toole report for over a year now. Despite seeking the whistle-blowers’ feedback on its scant findings, they have heard nothing more as to what will happen next.

Opposition TD attempts to seek clarity as to what happens now is met with vague lip service, usually delivered with the line, “the health and welfare of the men and women of the Defence Forces is a high priority for me”.

Nothing to see here.

Frustrated with years of inaction, a group of men in hazmat suits — the kind Air Corps staff should have been given — have picketed Kehoe’s constituency office.

Deny

If only those foreign governments or Samsung had the medical advice on hand here in Ireland. Perhaps they would have held tough and refused compensation to their sick workers if they’d heard this suggestion by an Irish doctor: “As a medical doctor, it is not possible for me to say if exposure to chemicals caused all or any of these illnesses because they are commonplace in the community at large.

“If it was one specific illness resulting from a known chemical that caused such an illness, that would be one thing. These are not the allegations that are being made, however,” Dr Leo Varadkar told the Dáil in February 2018.

However, the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry would not support Dr Varadkar’s view that we should be looking out for “one specific illness resulting from a known chemical” in the Air Corps case. It says there is sufficient evidence to be sure that exposure to TCE is causation for kidney cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and cardiac defects.

They say the evidence is sufficient to conclude that a causal relationship is likely between exposure to TCE and leukaemia, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, end-stage renal disease, Parkinson’s disease, and scleroderma.

The agency says there are 21 different health effects — including various cancers, miscarriages, and birth defects — that have been found in at least one study that evaluated exposure to TCE and/or PCE.

Aside from that list of life-changing illnesses arising from exposure to TCE, it is worth bearing in mind that this was not the only chemical used in Baldonnel.

One whistleblower told this newspaper that workers were exposed to as many as five of the same substances at those at the centre of the Samsung scandal.

Varadkar and Kehoe’s stock answer to date is that there should be no examination of any connection between conditions in Baldonnel until the seven ongoing court cases are resolved. The first of these was lodged five years ago, and the State Claims Agency has fought these cases tooth and nail.

One of the men was awarded a discovery order which compelled the Defence Forces to furnish him with a list of the chemicals he was asked to use in his time in the Air Corps.

In granting the discovery order in 2016, Mr Justice Paul McDermott ruled that “the quantities and dates of purchase and use of chemicals and mixtures and the safety data concerning their handling, application, and use form a highly relevant and important part of the case”.

“Having regard to the nature of the case made, I am satisfied that the plaintiff will suffer serious disadvantage in the preparation and presentation of his case if the relevant records sought under these categories are not made the subject of a discovery order,” he said.

The State Claims Agency took a case to the Court of Appeal last year — and won — arguing “a full discovery of this category which required all records concerning chemicals in use at the aerodrome was unnecessarily wide and would impose too heavy a burden”.

Last November, the head of the State Claims Agency appeared before the Public Accounts Committee and was asked a pertinent question he has yet to answer. Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy asked how it is possible the SCA can mount a defence of the Air Corps’ health and safety record in the courts, when the O’Toole report found no evidence of compliance, and the Health and Safety Authority found standards were lacking.

SCA director Ciarán Breen could not answer that question at the meeting but said he would revert to Ms Murphy with an answer.

Some six months later, she is still waiting.

The SCA has a copy of the Air Corps report on TCE exposure. It is unlikely it will introduce the document in its court defence, and Mr Kehoe repeatedly refuses to discuss its findings as it is ‘legally privileged’.

Nothing to see here.

The denial rises to Cabinet level also.

In 2017, when this newspaper reported that frustrated whistleblowers had unsuccessfully attempted to speak with the then-defence minister Simon Coveney, he denied any knowledge of their requests to meet him.

In January 2017, Mr Coveney told Irish Examiner political editor Daniel McConnell that he was “not aware of there being any problem with hearing from, or talking to, or understanding the concerns that whistle-blowers may have”.

A week later, we published text messages from Regina Doherty to one of the whistle-blowers, that showed she made representations on his behalf to Mr Coveney.

Die

Is it possible that these illnesses are a coincidence? Yes.

Could it be the case that there is no direct correlation between the chronic sickness suffered by former Air Corps staff and their working environment?

Absolutely.

But the evidence to date —what is known about the chemicals used in Baldonnel, the international precedents, the HSA inspection, the internal Air Corps memo — all these support the argument that at the very least, the possibility that conditions in Baldonnel have made people sick is worth a proper investigation.

What is known about chemicals used in Baldonnel, international precedents, an HSA inspection, and an internal Air Corps memo all support the argument that the possibility that conditions at the aerodrome made people sick is worth proper investigation. Picture: Nick Bradshaw

However, this is a question the Government won’t ask because it fears the answer.

It need not be this way.

Australia went through a major scandal when scores of its Air Force maintenance staff were found to be ill as a result of their working environment.

That scandal first emerged among a group of specialist staff who had a specific job, but the issue spread to Air Force staff who had exposures to a wider range of substances.

And yet in Australia, while those Air Force personnel involved in the health study have a higher rate of chronic illnesses than the general population, their mortality rate from those illnesses is actually lower.

Why?

Because the Australian government conducted an investigation, found a connection, and subsequently those affected knew the early warning signs, their doctors knew what to look out for, and earlier intervention was made possible.

There appears to be little appetite in Ireland to even investigate whether the same could possibly be happening here, despite the obvious potential benefits to a number of citizens.

Speaking privately, one of those who is seriously ill and who is before the court has admitted he believes he will be “in the ground” before his case reaches any sort of conclusion.

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