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The other whistleblowers: Looking at the human cost of the Air Corps chemical scandal

More Air Corps members are expected to launch legal action against the State.

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AN AIR CORPS whistleblower who claims he was exposed to harmful chemicals whilst in the force believes there could be more than 1,000 people affected by what he has described as “a scandal of the highest order”.

In an interview with TheJournal.ie, the man – who we are not naming as he has made a protected disclosure – detailed the trouble he experiences with daily life which he alleges traces back to his exposure to chemicals over a nine-year period at Baldonnel Airfield in west Dublin.

A 2016 inspection by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) identified a number of shortcomings at Baldonnel with corrective actions then taken by the Defence Forces in relation to how it handles such chemicals.

According to the HSA report seen by TheJournal.ie, the Air Corps was warned 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.

An independent review of what happened at the airfield has been ordered by junior minister with responsibility, Paul Kehoe.

Chronic fatigue, depression and anxiety are just some of the conditions the whistleblower has been living with for over a decade.

It has been alleged that there was a systematic failure on the part of the Defence Forces which allowed Air Corps personnel be exposed to harmful chemicals during his time at Baldonnel. The Defence Forces, which are facing legal action by some former employees, have said, “Given these matters are subject to litigation, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

TheJournal.ie has obtained a detailed list of chemicals which were purchased for use by the Air Corps. These include the highly toxic Ardrox 666 and Ardrox 670.

Other chemicals which have been used at Baldonnel include:

  • Hexavalent chromium
  • Dichloromethane
  • Trichloroethylene
  • Dichloromethane

All these chemicals have been proven to cause serious damage to humans after long-term exposure.

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This photograph shows a group of Air Corps members on a hillwalk, a number of whom have either passed away or are dealing with serious illnesses.

The men, who the whistleblower has known since he was a teenager, have experienced brain inflammations, Crohn’s Disease, cardiac arrest, ulcerative colitis and leukaemia.

The whistleblower in this case alleges 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

TheJournal.ie asked the Department of Defence to comment on the latest allegations being made.

A statement from the department reads: “The State Claims Agency is currently managing six claims taken by former and current members of the Air Corps against the Minister for Defence for personal injuries alleging exposure to chemical and toxic substances whilst working in the Air Corps in Baldonnel in the period 1991 to 2006. Given these matters are subject to litigation, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

The former Air Corps member has estimated the number of people who could be affected by taking into account the average recruiting figures (50 per year) since 1989.

“There are so many people I’ve spoken with who have serious health problems,” he says.

“They’re all from different parts of the country but there’s only one thing they have in common – they served in the Air Corps at Baldonnel.

“This has destroyed so many lives. Men, women, their partners, their children. They’ve all been affected and they should never have had to gone through it. There were guidelines in place to protect us. They were there since 1989.”

baldonnel 1 Air Corps, Engine Shop, Non Destructive Testing Workshop at Baldonnel

Despite legislation being in place regarding the use of chemicals and safety within the workplace in Ireland, it is claimed that long-term exposure to the substances led to cases of cancers, respiratory illnesses and mental health problems among members of the Defence Forces.

As the Irish Examiner reported last month, the HSA conducted inspections of the Baldonnel site last year and identified a number of shortcomings.

‘Life-changing conditions’

Its 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 documents, which have been seen by TheJournal.ie, the HSA said a number of safety measures must be implemented “with immediate effect” at Baldonnel.

The HSA report also advised the Air Corps that work activity involving category 1a or 1b chemicals (Cancer-causing), ” a higher ‘as far as technically possible’ standard applies”.

The HSA also advised that risk assessment processes need to be managed to ensure control measures, including “the provision of information and training to relevant

The HSA letter also ordered the Air Corps to respond to their findings and to detail what “corrective actions” it would be taking. In their response, a senior commanding officer says that all “carcinogenic and mutagenic chemicals will be subject to more stringent controls and that these controls will be fully documented”.

The senior Air Corps member also assures the HSA that “all existing work practices are re-examined to ensure compliance with best practice”.

The whistleblower believes these measure are ‘too little, too late’ for those who have already been diagnosed with “life-changing conditions”.

“When there were issues with asbestos in the Navy, this was dealt with in a timely fashion. There was an admittance that there was the presence of asbestos. They were all then medically screened and offered counselling. Compare this to the Air Corps and there’s no comparison. We feel like we’ve been abandoned .”

air corps report final Response by Air Corps saying there will be more stringent monitoring of chemical use.

The aim of the Air Corps whistleblower is to speed up a thorough investigation into what was allowed to continue at the air base.

“There needs to be something done immediately,” the whistleblower added.

At least six former members launched legal proceedings against the State for negligence and Junior Defence Minister Paul Kehoe has ordered an independent review of what happened at Baldonnel.

A number of whistleblowers have made protected disclosures to the department, as also reported by the Irish Examiner last month.

There are similar court cases occurring across the UK and Europe at this moment in time in relation to other forces’ protocols around handling chemicals.

The research

Adverse reactions, cited in many scientific studies, detail effects from exposure to hexavalent chromium – one of the chemicals used by the Air Corps – such as perforated eardrums, respiratory irritation, kidney damage, liver damage, pulmonary congestion, upper abdominal pain, nose irritation and damage, respiratory cancer, skin irritation.

Irritation of the lungs and skin can happen from once-off exposure to hexavalent chromium, according to experts. However, the development of cancers is linked be to more long-term exposure such as those who work with the chemical on a daily basis.

ardrox safety sheet Ardrox safety sheet detailing the presence of dichloromethane.

TheJournal.ie spoke to Dr Paul Gueret, an expert in the effects of organic solvents and chemicals on the human body. He founded occupational healthcare firm Medmark.

He backed up claims that dichloromethane can exacerbate heart issues but stressed that the available studies show it affects those with already pre-existing conditions.

“If you already have an irregular heart, then it can, yes, it can cause cardiac arrest. It essentially acts as an asphyxiate and reduces the level of oxygen in the blood,” he said.

With regards to trichloroethylene, Dr Gueret said there is a link between this chemical and the development of autoimmune diseases such as lupus or inflammatory bowel disease. Exposure to trichloroethylene and the link to autoimmune diseases are still being studied but have been found, Gueret said.

In relation to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and their links to cancers, he said there has been very strong studies carried out. There are hundreds of VOCs in the world such as benzene, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, tetrachloroethylene and toluene.

Benzene, in particular, can cause leukemia, Gueret says, but it’s not as prevalent as it once was. But he stressed that VOCs can have serious and potentially deadly effects on humans. The cancer links between dichlormethane and richloroethylene are also well established.

However, while the link between hexavalent chromium and Crohn’s disease might be tenuous, according to Gueret, its cancer-causing side-effects cannot be ignored. The chemical has been proven to cause a number of diseases including skin and lung cancer.

“It is now accepted that hexavalent chromium can cause cancers. You would have found it in old petrol pumps which contained benzene. That’s not the case now,” Gueret added.

hemcials purchased A list of chemicals purchased by the Defence Forces obtained by TheJournal.ie

He agreed that long-term exposure to these chemicals does have the ability to cause serious illnesses if proper precautions are not taken. Asked what his advice would be to people who use chemicals on a frequent basis, he said: “There should be a hierarchy of control in place. For example, if it’s a toxic compound then don’t use it. If you have to use it, then do so sparingly. Using personal protective equipment (PPE) should only be used as a very last resort.”

According to the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, exposure to dichloromethane can cause “electrocardiographic changes resembling those of carbon monoxide poisoning”.

Exposure to trichloroethylene in the workplace may cause scleroderma (a systemic autoimmune disease) in some people. Some men occupationally exposed to trichloroethylene and other chemicals showed decreases in sex drive, sperm quality, and reproductive hormone levels. This is again found in the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Cancer-causing

And dichloromethane, according to the US National Library of Medicine, showed associations between occupational exposure to dichloromethane and increased risk for several specific cancers, including brain cancer, liver and biliary tract cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

These are just some examples of proven scientific research into exposure to these chemicals.

What now?

The general secretary of the representative association for Defence Force members, PDFORRA’s Gerry Rooney, has said that chemicals and their use have been a problem for defence forces worldwide.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, he said that the representative association is working closely with all the whistleblowers and said that attitudes within the force would have to change if better health and safety practices were to be implemented.

“There’s a tendency in military organisations to focus on carrying out the operation at all costs.

“It’s fairly clear there was a problem with chemicals and their use.”

Second controversy

There has also been a separate controversy surrounding the appointment of Christopher O’Toole as the independent assessor of the claims.

We revealed last month how the claimants have been left frustrated after finding out that O’Toole is a former senior official at the Office of the Attorney General, one of the bodies which they are taking the case against.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, The Department of Defence has defended Minister Kehoe’s actions.

“The independent third-party appointed by Minister Kehoe to investigate the protected disclosures is Christopher O’Toole.  Mr O’Toole is a former senior official of the Office of the Attorney General. Therefore, the Minister is satisfied that no conflict of interest arises.

“In addition, you may wish to note that as the Minister informed the Dáil on Wednesday, the State Claims Agency is the body managing the 6 claims taken by former and current members of the Air Corps for personal injuries alleging exposure to chemical and toxic substances whilst working in the Air Corps in the period 1991 to 2006.”

Read: WikiLeaks releases over 8,000 documents ‘hacked from CIA’ >

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