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Chemical exposure claims: Five years on from protected disclosures Air Corps whistleblowers still 'waiting for justice'

Gavin Tobin claims members of the Air Corps were exposed to dangerous chemicals.

Gavin Tobin.
Gavin Tobin.

IT IS NOW five years since former members of the Air Corps submitted protected disclosures detailing allegations that they became unwell due to their exposure to dangerous chemicals at Baldonnel Airfield. 

Since then, whistleblower Gavin Tobin and several of his colleagues have been trying to have their full case heard in the courts. Tobin is currently involved in litigation against the State. That remains in the discovery phase as Tobin waits for more files to be handed over.

Last July, a five-panel Supreme Court hearing unanimously found in favour of Tobin, meaning the State must now disclose documents outlining any chemicals that Tobin may have been exposed to while working at the airfield between 1990 and 1999. 

The Court of Appeal had originally said Tobin’s application for discovery was premature. However, the Supreme Court last year decided that the Court of Appeal had erred in its decision and ruled that the documents must be made discoverable to Tobin along with a number of other men who are suing the State.

Tobin says he has yet to receive all these documents. The Department of Defence claims Covid restrictions have hampered its efforts. 

Meanwhile, Tobin continues to collate details on members who served at Baldonnel and who died prematurely.  

Baldonnel Airfield

Tobin worked at Baldonnel Airfield for nearly 10 years. During his time there, he was part of the mechanic crew and was regularly required to use dangerous chemicals as part of his work. 

Through his research in recent years, he discovered how dozens of former colleagues and friends had either died early or developed some serious medical conditions after working at the airfield. 

As he continues his fight in the courts, Tobin has claimed he has documented the early deaths of another 30 former Air Corps members since he first submitted a protected disclosure nearly five years ago.

He says he has so far validated 85 deaths and is in the process of investigating 12 more. Tobin says he has seen the death certificates of the deceased which showed they died before the age of 66. 

The whistleblowers in this case allege there was a disregard for the safety of young Air Corps members. According to an online resource created for those who believe they were affected by the chemical exposure, there was:

  • No meaningful chemical risk assessments.
  • No risk specific health surveillance
  • No Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) issued
  • No chemical health and safety training whatsoever
  • No reporting of health and safety incidents
  • No follow up of unusual illnesses by medical personnel
  • Ignoring dangerous air quality reports
  • Personnel doused in toxic chemicals as pranks (hazing) incidents
  • Highly toxic chemicals disposed of onsite in an unsafe manner

In 2017, TheJournal.ie reported how a number of former Air Corps members had made protected disclosures alleging wrongdoing with regard to health and safety in the Defence Forces.

Tobin recently wrote to Defence Minister Simon Coveney to highlight how much time has passed since the government was informed about the allegations at Baldonnel.

In the letter, he states that today, 11 December, marks five years since the then Fine Gael-led government was told about issues at Baldonnel. 

Deaths 

Tobin has been continuing to log what he has described as the untimely deaths of his colleagues. 

Of the 85 deaths he has cited, five relate to the 1980s seven to the 1990s and the rest have taken place since 2000.

Tobin also contacted then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in 2017, when Varadkar also held the Defence portfolio. 

Tobin said: “Subsequent protected disclosures to Varadkar were either ignored or forwarded to then Junior Minister Paul Kehoe.

“Absolutely nothing has been done to provide targeted healthcare for exposed personnel since this date despite damning findings by the HSA which the Department of Defence continue to try to downplay. We are waiting for justice.”

The average age of death of the cases recorded by Tobin stands at 50 years old. Tobin believes the number of deaths from chemical exposure could be as high as 100.

The 2016 HSA report warned the Air Corps it could face prosecution if it did not “comply with advice and relevant legal requirements” about how hazardous substances were managed, among other safety matters.

The HSA’s report stated immediate attention was needed at Baldonnel and that protective equipment must be made available to staff. The necessary equipment should include protective gear for eyes and hands, as well as respirators to protect against inhalation of toxic fumes.

In the report, which has not been published but has been seen by TheJournal.ie, the HSA said a number of safety measures must be implemented “with immediate effect” at Baldonnel.

These measures have since been introduced at the airfield on a phased basis.

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Tobin vowed that he will continue to fight for his day in court and continues to collect details of untimely deaths at the airfield.

A spokesperson for the Department of Defence said: 

“The State Claims Agency (SCA) is currently managing a number of claims on behalf of the Minister for Defence, for personal injuries alleging exposure to chemical and toxic substances whilst working in the Air Corps.

“There is ongoing engagement with the State Claims Agency in this context and consideration of the issues by the Minister must necessarily be informed by this ongoing litigation.

“It would therefore be inappropriate to comment further at this point.” 

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