The Air Corps “seems to be a place where there’s an abnormal number of people who die prematurely”, according to a member of the Oireachtas’ Public Account Committee.
Social Democrats TD, Catherine Murphy, made the remark as the State Claims Agency confirmed to the PAC that there are eight cases being taken against the State regarding chemical exposure at the Air Corps.
In 2017 the Irish Examiner first revealed that the State was then facing six cases taken by former technicians who had received the opinion of a toxico-pathologist that their chronic illnesses were caused by exposure to the chemicals used in servicing aircraft.
A number of whistleblowers also made protected disclosures alleging health and safety failings at Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel, which were later supported by the findings of an inspection by the Health and Safety Authority.
One of the whistleblowers has compiled a list of deceased former Air Corps members and their causes of deaths, which he believes may be connected to chemical exposure issues.
Today officials from the State Claims Agency, which is handling the lawsuits against the State, appeared before the PAC. Ms Murphy raised the list during the PAC meeting, and said it showcases an “extraordinary age profile of people who have died in the Air Corps”.
“The Air Corps is not a big employer, and there's 72 deaths, all pre-retirement, some very young. Now, a large core of the 72, about 14 or 15, are by suicide, but others are in particular categories, like cancers and cardiacs. It seems to be a place where there are an abnormal number of people who die prematurely, and that would have jumped out to me as something that would make me question that there was a risk,” she said.
Ms Murphy also raised a reply she received from Junior Defence Minister Paul Kehoe which revealed the SCA had carried out annual health and safety audits at Casement Aerodrome.
SCA director, Ciarán Breen, said the cases against the State date from 1972-2007, and that the SCA began its audits in 2006: “In 2007, the particular workshop which is associated with the alleged exposure was changed to a state-of-the-art facility. At no time, during those audits and reviews, was anything specifically brought to our attention about the historical exposure, if there was one that might have been there, and how that was handled."
However, Ms Murphy also highlighted how many of these annual SCA audits were carried out in the years before the Health and Safety Authority investigation and its adverse findings. “It's my understanding that they did threaten live legal action,” she said of the HSA investigation.
“It seems extraordinary that you have one arm of the State that may be doing that and another giving a clean bill of health in terms of risk. That just doesn't, for me, stack up in terms of mitigating risk into the future,” she said.
Mr Breen said some of the legal cases are awaiting the decision from the Supreme Court on a discovery issue.
In October 2016 the High Court granted former Air Corps technician, Gavin Tobin, an order for discovery of the chemicals he used while working at Casement Aerodrome from 1989 to 1999.
He had argued that he would need a full list of the chemicals he was asked to use during his time in the Air Corps in order to make his case against the State.
The State brought the decision to the Court of Appeal, where it was overturned.