The State is facing seven High Court claims from former Air Corps technicians, who say they suffer chronic illnesses due to exposure to toxic chemicals while they were cleaning and servicing aircraft.
A number of whistleblowers have made protected disclosures about working conditions in Air Corps headquarters at Casement Aerodrome. The Health and Safety Authority subsequently investigated, and threatened legal action, unless the Defence Forces improved worker safety.
Mr Howlin raised the issue in the Dáil last month, and has since received correspondence from the Government.
“I’ve raised it with the Taoiseach directly and I’ve gotten a two-page response from the minister with responsibility for defence, and I’m not satisfied,” Mr Howlin said. “There needs to be at least an expert-review panel set up to look into this in some detail.”
However, Mr Howlin did not call for a full commission of investigation, but said that the findings of an external review should determine whether such a process is necessary.
“Whether a full tribunal of investigation is required remains to be seen, but the first step to that is to have an external, expert review, and that needs to happen immediately, and I certainly will be pressing for that,” he said.
This review should include a health study of Air Corps members past and present to determine if they have a higher prevalence of chronic conditions compared to the general public, he said.
“That would have to be a critical part of the review, because, once the fears are there, they have to be empirically checked out,” Mr Howlin said.
“They are either fact or not fact. There’s no point in people either dismissing them, or saying it’s a fact. We need to have external, independent, authoritative decisions on these matters.”
Mr Howlin was speaking in Cork last Friday, where he opened the party’s new office on Bandon Rd. His comments came days after calls for health studies were made in the Dáil by Sinn Féin and Fianna Fail.
“Given the possibility that there is a major health scandal hidden in the Air Corps, due to bad health-and-safety standards, is it not logical that an audit, or survey, of the health of serving members and ex-serving members be carried out to determine the scale of the health problems in Ireland, similar to the survey that was undertaken in Australia, when that country became aware of serious exposure of serving members to deadly chemicals?” said Sinn Féin defence spokesman Aengus Ó Snodaigh.
“Australia is but one of a number of countries that have identified major flaws in their health-and-safety regimes. When the Australians identified those flaws, one of the first things they did was to conduct a survey of serving and ex-members to determine their health status.”
Fianna Fáil defence spokeswoman Lisa Chambers said: “We need an inquiry into whether technicians in the Air Corps developed cancer, neurological disorders, and other chronic conditions, as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals during their employment”.
“We need a medical review of all those potentially affected.”