MORE THAN 300 members of the Defence Forces were exposed to asbestos during a peacekeeping mission in East Timor – and were first informed of it almost ten years later.
The revelation comes just weeks after dozens of civilian and military personnel were exposed to asbestos on Irish naval ships, prompting a fleet-wide investigation to remove the substance.
A letter sent to troops in January 2011 by military officials, seen by TheJournal.ie, revealed that buildings used by military personnel in East Timor had been constructed using asbestos.
These were damaged in the civilian unrest that took place between 1999 and 2002.
“Thus, serving personnel could have been exposed to asbestos fibres,”, the letter reads.
If inhaled, these fibres can lead to lung cancer or scarring of the lung. The material was commonly used in buildings until being banned in the more than two decades ago.
The United Nations mission peacekeeping mission first became aware of the issue in 2002, when a report on the issue was submitted to East Timor’s Department of Health.
While analysis of the asbestos found it to be ‘the least dangerous’ variant of the material, “when crushed or shredded, even this type can cause health problems if inhaled, especially over long periods and in high concentrations”.
Five months previous to the troops receiving the letter, the New Zealand Defence Forces became aware of similar exposure to their troops.
An assessment found that New Zealand troops could have been exposed to the dust when “cleaning up debris, or even sleeping in disused buildings”.
A spokesperson for the Defence Forces confirmed that this letter was sent “appropriate Medical Staff within the Defence Forces and all members that served in East Timor”.
“All members of the Defence Forces undergo a medical examination annually which includes all the procedures for the screening for possible risks of exposure to asbestos,” the spokesperson said.
Military personnel can therefore be assured that the normal annual medical screening is a screen for asbestos related illness.
Members of the Defence Forces were deployed to East Timor in 1999 under a United Nations peacekeeping operation led by Australia.
A snap referendum led to the region voting to become independent from the neighbouring Indonesia, who had invaded the country more than two decades previously.
Violence broke out in East Timor from pro-Indonesian militia in the run up to elections and over 500,000 were displaced from their homes, sparking a call for United Nations assistance to restore peace.