The disclosure of a seventh case came in the Dáil yesterday, where opposition politicians said the Government’s response to a growing health scandal over the past year was like ‘Groundhog Day’ in its repetition and inaction.
Last year, the Irish Examiner revealed six former Defence Forces members were suing the State over chronic health issues. A medical expert had advised that the health complaints were as a result of working conditions at Casement Aerodrome.
This newspaper also revealed how a number of whistleblowers had warned the Government that the Air Corps’ management of chemical exposure was inadequate, a claim vindicated after an inspection by the Health and Safety Authority.
Junior Defence Minister Paul Kehoe yesterday confirmed a seventh case. He denied claims there had been a cover-up within the Defence Forces to hide the extent of its knowledge of conditions in Baldonnell Aerodrome.
He told the Dáil his department has set up a protected disclosures office to listen to whistleblower claims.
An independent report by former civil servant Christopher O’Toole into the whistleblower claims found there was no documentation available to demonstrate the Air Corps met its health and safety obligations.
“The Minister of State seems, somehow, to be suggesting that his inaction is to serve the interests of those affected,” said Fianna Fáil defence spokeswoman Lisa Chambers.
“Minister, this particular issue is a little bit like Groundhog Day; we continue to ask questions, myself and others, and we continue to get the same stock response.
“This particular issue was the subject of many PQs [parliamentary questions’ last year; it’s not going to go away, it will be the subject of many PQs again this year until we start to see action on this.
“Claims of a deliberate cover-up, victimisation of whistleblowers, a half-hearted attitude towards health and safety in the Air Corps; in 2018 we now need an enquiry as to whether technicians in the Air Corps developed cancer neurological disorders and other chronic conditions as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals during their work employment.
“We know from listening to the many, many, accounts from those who are still alive and with us today that the difficulties that they’re facing in terms of their health and their well-being cannot be put down to coincidence,” said Ms Chambers.
Mr Kehoe said: “There is absolutely no cover-up whatsoever. I now have a suite of options that I will consider over the next period, for the next steps I will take. I have taken this issue very seriously. I have met with the people who made the protected disclosures and I have listened to them and their concerns.”
Sinn Féin defence spokesman Aengus Ó Snodaigh called for a health survey of Air Corps members to determine whether they are more at risk of serious illness.
“All the O’Toole report dealt with was whether the procedures were in place to deal with whistleblowers. This is not about the whistleblowers or the cases before the courts at the moment,” he said.
“The State is fighting them tooth and nail and I think it is on the losing side. If those are set aside, there are quite a number of other members who gave service to this State, through the Air Corps, who are suffering catastrophic health problems.
“Most of these, they believe, are related to the chemicals they were exposed to, such as trichloroethylene and others which cause not only minor problems such as ulcers or lethargy, but major heart defects, birth defects, and a range of respiratory and intestinal complaints. It is affecting them in the same way as poison.”