Making babies – Another human cost of the Irish Air Corps Toxic Chemical Health & Safety scandal

This article was originally published in June 2017 and is being republished as Lunchtime Live on Newstalk 106FM cover IVF & Fertility stories. 

Making babies the hard way.

There is something shameful and deviant about sitting in a small public toilet in a busy public hospital masturbating. Other people want to use the toilet, you are trying to be as quick and as quiet as possible but you have a job to do and you cant leave the cubicle until it is done.

Welcome to the glamorous world of infertility. I was married a number of years at this stage and my wife was starting to worry that pregnancy wasn’t happening for us. She had established contact with a maternity hospital over her worries. She was given a clean bill of health and now it was my turn and this started with a semen analysis to establish if I had a sufficient sperm count and also to establish the health & motility of these.

I presented at small hatch in in one of Dublin’s maternity hospitals where I was given a container, verified my name, address and DOB and was sent on my way to find a free toilet cubical where I could “produce” a sample.

After the job was done I returned the sample to the hatch where I was told that results would be available within the hour, not to me but to my wife’s gynaecologist. So the next day I rang his office for the results and was told that he couldn’t fit me in for an appointment for at least 3 weeks. This pissed me off greatly as I knew a semen analysis is an “eyeball” count and I wasn’t too keen to hang around for weeks awaiting the result.

I sought the consultant’s number and left a message for him to call me back to put me out of my misery. He called me back and confirmed what I had started to suspect…I had a serious fertility problem. A healthy sperm count was between 50 and 100 million sperm per m/l and mine was only 1 million. Considering that the average intercourse attempts before pregnancy in a healthy couple was 1 in 4 attempts my odds of creating a natural pregnancy were one in 400. Essentially it could take 33 years of monthly attempts for success not 4 months.

And there was worse news to come when we finally did sit and meet with the gynaecologist. Of those 1 million sperm that I did have over 90% were immotile or defective in some way so now my odds had lengthened to a 1 in 4000 chance of pregnancy. Now being fairly certain that we didn’t have over 300 years of monthly sex to create a family it became readily apparent we needed the intervention of fertility specialists. The gynaecologist told us our only option was ICSI a particularly expensive specialist form of IVF. Intracytoplasmic sperm injection is a procedure in which a single sperm is injected directly into an egg.

In that meeting with the gynaecologist I felt numb and totally drop kicked. I had reached the stage in my life where I wanted to become a father. The previous summer I had been on a rocky beach in the West of Ireland with my wife, her sister and two nieces. I remember walking along the beach with my 1 & 3 year old nieces, lifting over rocks to see the creepy crawly creatures under them, the subsequent delight of the kids and had thought “yep I could be a dad” .

As you can imagine my wife was utterly distraught at the news that we could not have children naturally. She is very good with children and had a much stronger instinct and desires for parenthood than me. The gynaecologist said that considering our ages (early thirties) and the severity of my infertility that we had no time to waste and he recommended Clane IVF clinic.

Starting IVF involves a lot of rigmarole. Further medicals, testing & analysis, and also regular tests for STDs such as hepatitis & HIV in order to protect their staff &  maintain a quality trail.

And of course during this build up our family and circle of friends are popping out sprogs like there is no tomorrow. When you find out you can’t have children naturally you start to notice every single pregnant woman you pass. Everyone is pregnant except you guys.

I do recall a dinner we went to in a friend’s house where there were 3 couples present. The host couple already had a child and over the course of the dinner the other couple declared “they had an announcement” they were expecting their first child. Obviously they were bursting with pride & happiness and we were very happy for them but immediately I could sense that my wife was distressed but “holding it together”.

After the meal was over and we said our goodbyes my wife broke down as soon as she got inside our car. It is unfortunately a reality for childless couples that other people’s good news can cause them pain. I suppose it invokes a panic that perhaps the IVF will never work and leads to a fear that we would never have “an announcement” of our own.

Eventually we received our prescription for the IVF medication which mainly injectable hormones for my wife. Although I was the one with the fertility problem all the treatment of egg production, egg harvesting and embryo implantation was naturally enough focused on my wife. She carried the can 100% for my infertility.

So off we skipped with our prescription like kids to a sweet shop, we could hardly contain our excitement. My wife required daily injections and I was the injector. Initially we were very giddy and one of our biggest problems was that one or other of us would get into a fit of giggles. It is not very easy to give an injection when one or other of you is shaking like a leaf from laughter. I became very skilled at giving the injections and on more than one occasion managed to give an injection that my wife didn’t even notice.

Part of the treatment involved regular inter-vaginal ultrasound monitoring to observe and monitor the growth of eggs. Normally a woman produces one fertile egg follicle per month alternating ovaries but during IVF the fertility drugs promote Controlled Ovarian Hyper-stimulation whereby a larger number of ripened egg follicles are produced. This is in order to harvest as many eggs as possible so that a number of embryos can be created. This increases your odds of success, IVF is very much numbers game.

I accompanied my wife to the first scan and everything was hunky dory so when some work commitments happened to coincide with the next scheduled scan my wife was happy to travel to the clinic on her own as we just saw the scan as routine and had no reason to fear anything was going amiss. So she headed down to Clane on her own and about an hour later I got a call from my wife who was sobbing uncontrollably at the other end. The nurse performing the scan had ultrasound had inserted the probe and then had gone white, she called the doctor urgently and he went white. It turned out my wife had started Hyper Ovulation Stimulation Syndrome and the cycle had to be stopped immediately.

So there and then our current chances of becoming parents evaporated. Many people will talk about the emotional roller-coaster that is IVF but we never paid much heed. We made a serious mistake and that was we never contemplated failure. We only contemplated success, failure wasn’t even on our mind, so when that failure did come we were totally unprepared. It was like the chair had been kicked out from underneath us.

As mentioned IVF essentially involves Controlled Ovarian Hyper-stimulation but Hyper Ovulation Stimulation Syndrome is a very dangerous condition where the woman reacts “too well” to the fertility drugs and produces too many ovarian follicles and is at risk of essentially an internal overdose of hormones leading to respiratory, cardiac or renal problems and can be fatal.

So getting over this HOSS involved stopping treatment and then careful monitoring to make sure the threat dissipated, we then needed my wife’s regular ovulation cycle to get back on track and as you can imagine this took a number of months. We found Clane IVF clinic to be very professional, very supportive and always felt they had our best interests to the fore and would not rush treatment cycles.

For many patients of IVF, the first cycle really is like the zeroing shots at range practice. It allows the IVF professionals get an idea to the responsiveness to IVF drugs of one woman’s body compared to another’s.

For our second cycle the IVF injection dose was adjusted and we made some significant adjustments to our expectations. This time we only contemplated failure and decided that success would be a bonus. This approach we believed would protect us somewhat from disappointment if the cycle failed again.

This cycle however went well and a date was set for February 2008 for the harvesting procedure. Again this involves an inter-vaginal ultrasound probe just this time with a retractable lance that is able to burst each follicle and extract the egg. At the time the IVF clinic was in a portacabins at Clane General Hospital and there was a small 3 bed-roomed ward next to the theatre which was connected via a hatch to the Embryology laboratory.

So my wife got gowned up and was sedated for the procedure as I waited on my own in the small ward. Eventually my wife was brought back into the ward in a wheelchair, bleeding and with tears running down her face and streaming down her neck. For me this was an extremely low point of my life. I felt extremely guilty because this was my fault, I was infertile not my wife. If I was functional she would not have needed to go through this.

So I’m sitting beside my wife who is upset and confused because of the sedation I’m trying to comfort her and then one of the IVF nurses called in to us to tell us the egg harvesting had been a success and that now it was “my turn”. I was handed a small sample container and had to go into a room I had nicknamed “the milking parlour” to have the most important wank of my life. If you pardon my porn reference this was the “money shot”, I had to produce and my aim had to be impeccable.

Once I provided the sample it was handed over immediately to the embryologist and he went and worked his scientific magic of ICSI. IVF is now a very well understood procedure but many people are a bit horrified when they realise the scientific & medical technology was adapted from the livestock industry.

So I believe that 18 eggs were harvested and treated with ICSI. This resulted in 15 successfully fertilised eggs. We opted for a service that matured the zygotes a bit longer in the lab. While this was more expensive it also improved the odds of success when implanted.

I think it was 2 weeks later that we went back for the eggs to be implanted. To improve the chances of success Clane implanted 2 zygotes in what is a relatively straightforward procedure and then it was a waiting game for 2 weeks until the first blood test.

Those 2 weeks are a time of huge anticipation. Do you cheat and try a home pregnancy test or do you wait until the official, higher accuracy, blood pregnancy test. So we waited until the official test and you have to then wait for a phone call from the lab to give you the good or bad news. Like I said we had dampened down expectations but it was till nerve racking.

When the news came it was positive, we were going to be parents. Naturally we were overjoyed and we kicked into “nesting mode” and what turned out to be an uneventful and normal pregnancy.

Sean, our first child,  was born in October 2009 and when I first set eyes on him I became very emotional. Tears came out of nowhere as I sobbed uncontrollably looking at this helpless little bundle swaddled in a hospital blanket, blinking and yawning and wondering where he was.

We still had some frozen embryos and so a year or so later we decided to try for another cycle. This time we chose to implant only a single embryo as a year or so into being parents neither of us fancied the thoughts of being parents of twins. But again, we made the mistake of not contemplating failure, again we thought everything would work like it did the previous time. So cycle 3 was a failure but as well as that all along the different phases of harvesting, fertilisation, implantation, freezing and thawing there was an attrition rate and so after cycle 3 we only had 2 fertilised zygotes left.

Again, after a failed cycle my wife needed a number of months for her menstrual cycle to get back to normal before we could go for the 4th cycle attempt. We took the decision to implant our last 2 remaining embryos taking the chance on twins rather than the expense of a further cycle. Like in the case of our first pregnancy only one embryo took and in May 2012 our second son Ciaran was born.

Both boys are now in school with one in Junior Infants and the other in First Class of our local Educate Together. Both are healthy fun loving kind kids with a love of the outdoors and both have a curious mind and 99% of the time they are a pure joy to raise. The thought always fascinates me as to how would their personalities be different if they had been implanted in the opposite order. Technically they are twins being conceived on the same day but just born over 2 years apart.

IVF was an expensive undertaking and we spent many tens of thousands of euro. I am conscious of many of my Irish Army Air Corps colleagues with fertility difficulties remain childless because either the IVF technology was not mature enough at the time to deal with their level of infertility or because they simply could not afford the cost of the procedure.

I have no doubt that my fertility trouble stemmed from my working environment in the Irish Army Air Corps at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel. The working conditions were horrendous,  we had no chemical training whatsoever, we were issued with no PPE whatsoever and the buildings that housed the chemicals I worked with were asbestos clad brick sheds built by the British in 1915-1918 and were unfit for purpose as they had utterly inadequate ventilation.

Chemicals we worked with in Baldonnel were exceptionally dangerous and were listed as Carcinogens, Mutagens and Teratogens and a number of chemicals in daily use were reproductive toxins and warned of harm to fertility as well as the capacity to cause heritable genetic harm.

My wife and I are definitely one of the luckier couples from Baldonnel, many couples have not been able to have children and will move into an old age that will be lonelier as a result. It is one thing if you don’t want a family but to want a family and be denied it because your employer didn’t give a damn about Health & Safety is galling.

Worse still I believe are the serving and former personnel who have managed to have children but whose children have suffered serious physical & mental disabilities due to their parents unprotected chemical exposure during their service in the Irish Army Air Corps. Many of these chemicals have the capacity not only to harm sperm, eggs and the developing child but also to harm the male &  female reproductive organs increasing the chance of disabled children long after leaving the service.

Infertility is common and on the increase but the levels of infertility or fertility difficulties experienced by male personnel in the most chemically contaminated workshops in Baldonnel appears anecdotally to be as high as 50%.

This is another health effect of the chemical Health & Safety failings that needs full investigation by competent medical & scientific bodies.

74 Untimely deaths recorded in Irish Air Corps toxic chemical scandal

Untimely* deaths of serving & former Irish Air Corps personnel

  • 74 verified deaths have occurred in total since 1980 
  • 61 of these deaths have occurred since 2000
  • 37 of these deaths have occurred since 2010
Either the rate of death is accelerating or we are missing many deaths from previous decades or possibly both.
 

3 most significant causes of death

  • Approximately a third of deaths are from  cancer
  • Approximately a third of deaths are from cardiac
  • Approximately a fifth of deaths are from suicide
*We record untimely as dying at or before age 66 (civilian pension age), average age of death is 50 years. We are counting deaths from medical reasons & suicide, we are not counting accidental deaths or murder.

73 Untimely deaths recorded in Irish Air Corps toxic chemical scandal

Untimely* deaths of serving & former Irish Air Corps personnel

  • 73 verified deaths have occurred in total since 1980 
  • 60 of these deaths have occurred since 2000
  • 37 of these deaths have occurred since 2010
Either the rate of death is accelerating or we are missing many deaths from previous decades or possibly both.
 

3 most significant causes of death

  • Approximately a third of deaths are from  cancer
  • Approximately a third of deaths are from cardiac
  • Approximately a fifth of deaths are from suicide
*We record untimely as dying at or before age 66 (civilian pension age), average age of death is 50 years. We are counting deaths from medical reasons & suicide, we are not counting accidental deaths or murder.

Dáil Éireann Written Answers 15/01/19 – Irish Air Corps – State Claims Agency

Catherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)

QUESTION NO: 133

To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the health and safety management system reports and or audits carried out on the Air Corps by the State Claims Agency in each of the years 2006 to 2015; the year and author of each report and or audit in the timeframe; if the reports have been published and or classified as confidential; and if he will make a statement on the matter. 1180/19

Paul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)

I am advised by the State Claims Agency that it has a statutory remit under the National Treasury Management Agency (Amendment) Act 2000 to provide risk management advices to Delegated State Authorities. Such risk management advices include the provision of Health & Safety Management System audits, inspections and reviews.

From this, State Claims Agency conducted a number of Health & Safety Management System Defence Forces audits within the Air Corps between the years 2006 – 2015. The Reports are authored by the State Claims Agency and are confidential between the Agency and their Client.

*****

The State Claims Agency audited the Irish Air Corps for a decade before the Health & Safety Authority were forced to intervene and stop the ongoing CMR & toxic chemical exposure of the Baldonnel workforce.

The HSA file was opened in January 2016 and was only closed in September 2018 but the “superb” health and safety performance of the Air Corps for the decade prior to HSA intervention helped the State Claims Agency & NTMA staff earn discretionary performance-related payments.

DELAY – DENY – DIE

72 Untimely deaths recorded in #IrishAirCorps toxic chemical scandal

Untimely* deaths of serving & former Irish Air Corps personnel

  • 72 verified deaths have occurred in total since 1980 
  • 59 of these deaths have occurred since 2000
  • 36 of these deaths have occurred since 2010
Either the rate of death is accelerating or we are missing many deaths from previous decades or possibly both.
 

3 most significant causes of death

  • Approximately a third of deaths are from  cancer
  • Approximately a third of deaths are from cardiac
  • Approximately a fifth of deaths are from suicide
*We record untimely as dying at or before age 66 (civilian pension age), average age of death is 49 years. We are counting deaths from medical reasons & suicide, we are not counting accidental deaths or murder.

Never forget the 71+ untimely deaths from Irish Air Corps Toxic Chemical Scandal

Let us not forget the 71+ Irish Air Corps personnel who made the ultimate sacrifice NEEDLESSLY. That’s 71 sons, brothers & fathers who will never be home for Christmas ever again.

Let us think of their families & work to prevent further unnecessary deaths.

Perhaps the Irish Air Corps will work to help survivors in 2019 rather than actively denying appropriate healthcare as they have consistently done to date.

DELAY – DENY – DIE

Dáil Éireann Written Answers 18/12/18 – Irish Air Corps – State Claims Agency Audits

Catherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)

QUESTION NO: 119

To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if the State Claims Agency supplied the Health and Safety Authority with copies of its audits and or reports regarding the Air Corps; and if he will make a statement on the matter. 53026/18

Paul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)

I have been advised by the State Claims Agency that it does not provide reports of Health and Safety Management System Audits conducted by the Agency in Delegated State Authorities (including the Defence Forces) to the Health and Safety Authority. I am advised that these are provided to the Delegated State Authorities only.

With regard to the Air Corps, the Deputy will be aware that the Health and Safety Authority (HSA), following a number of inspections in 2016, issued a Report of Inspection to the Air Corps on the 21st October 2016, listing a number of matters requiring attention which included the areas of risk assessment.

The Air Corps as a consequence of this HSA report have implemented an improvement plan which is being conducted over eight phases. Seven of the eight phases have now been fully completed. The final phase is a continuous on-going process. The implementation plan focuses on a number of areas, including risk assessment.

I wish to assure the Deputy that the health and welfare of the Defence Forces personnel is a high priority for me and the military authorities.

*****

For 10 years BEFORE the Heath & Safety Authority were forced to investigate the Irish Air Corps, due to the ongoing safety risks to personnel, the State Claims Agency had been carrying out Health & Safety Risk Management System audits at Baldonnel. 

In the eyes of the State Claims Agency the Irish Air Corps risk profile was continuously improving whilst personnel on the ground were still being exposed to toxic & CMR chemicals without appropriate PPE or training causing lifelong injures to themselves and their children. 

It is now obvious that the State Claims Agency audits were incompetent  especially considering it took the Health & Safety Authority 2 years and 9 months to close their investigation file on the Irish Air Corps.

The State Claims Agency audits need to be released to the Oireachtas without delay.

DELAY – DENY – DIE

Dáil Éireann Written Answers 18/12/18 – Irish Air Corps – Legal Cases

Catherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)

QUESTION NO: 117

To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the number of open cases the State Claims Agency is handling in respect of the Air Corps, its staff and former staff; and if he will make a statement on the matter. 53027/18

Paul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)

I am advised by the State Claims Agency that their reports indicate that currently the Agency is managing 21 active compensation claims in respect of the Air Corps where it is alleged that a staff member is the injured party.

Given that litigation is on-going, the Deputy will appreciate that it would be inappropriate for me to comment further in relation to these claims.

*****

Considering the limited media coverage of this scandal to date, this figure can only be expected to climb as serving & former personnel become aware that their ongoing health issues are likely a result of unprotected toxic chemical exposure whilst serving in the Irish Air Corps.

DELAY – DENY – DIE

Irish Air Corps Health & Safety officer ordered evidence of Carbon Monoxide risks destroyed.

In 1995 the Irish Air Corps commissioned an independent third party organisation to carry out air quality testing in the Engine Repair Flight building. ERF comprised the Engine Overhaul facility, the Non Destructive Testing workshop and the Machine shop. Avionics Squadron was located in the same physical building as the ERF and the open attic spaces meant  chemical vapours & fumes from either unit were free to flow in either direction.

The Avionics / ERF building was also less than 20m downwind from the 3m high Spray Paint Shop exhaust stack which exhausted benzene, hexamethylene diisocyanate, toluene and xylene.

Ambient Air Monitoring for Health & Safety at Work Report from the 2nd of August 1995 found that #Dichloromethane (also known as Methylene chloride) was found in some areas to be 175ppm. At the time The most stringent health and safety limits for #DCM were 50 ppm (TWA for 8 hours) and 126 ppm (STEL for 15 minutes).

Personnel, including other ranks employed in the Formation Safety Office, were never informed of these results. Avionics / ERF personnel were left in situ for a further 12 years before the workshops were finally condemned & demolished and needlessly exposed to #DCM and other chemicals.

Significantly Dichloromethane metabolises as Carbon Monoxide once inhaled but is lethal in many other different ways.  We have at least 10 untimely deaths of men who worked in this building alone, their average age of death was 49.3 years and the youngest was only 32.

*****

So we have one state body warning the general public about the dangers of Carbon Monoxide, while another state body hid evidence of a known carbon monoxide threat from personnel working in a heavily contaminated facility.

Delay – Deny – Die

Samsung toxic chemical scandal Versus Irish Air Corps toxic chemical scandal

Samsung has apologised to employees who developed cancer at one of its computer chip manufacturing facilities following a ten-year legal battle.

The announcement comes after the company and a group representing ailing Samsung workers agreed to accept compensation terms and end a highly-publicised standoff. The company’s apology was part of the settlement.

Kim Ki-nam, the head of Samsung’s semiconductor business, said: “We sincerely apologise to the workers who suffered from illness and their families. We have failed to properly manage health risks at our semiconductor and LCD factories.”

Campaigners claim that 320 employees at Samsung have developed illnesses after being exposed to toxic chemicals at in its chip factories. They also claim that 118 people died as a result.

Read more on the Telegraph UK

*****

Here is a list of some of the chemicals used by Samsung and surprise, surprise all of them bar one were used by the Irish Air Corps in different hangars, labs & workshops at Baldonnel & Gormanston aerodromes.

In fact Trichloroethane was so “borrowed” by other units that almost every location at Baldonnel would send personnel up to the Engine Shop to  obtain some TRIKE in plastic Coca Cola bottles, milk cartons, aerosol lids or any other vessel capable of begging some of the liquid. Trike was used to clean, degrease or even just remove black marks off floors. 

This last usage meant that on at least 2 occasions floors in the Air Corps Training Depot were actually disolved in separate incidents years appart. One where old fashioned lino was dissolved back to the backing twine and another years later were a lecture room was mopped with a 25 litre drum of Trike that resulted in the vinyl floor tiles shrinking & curling up and the wall paint disolving & flowing off the walls onto the floor. 

ChemicalUsed By SamsungUsed By Air Corps
Trichloroethylene
aka TCE aka Trike
YesYes
DichromatesYesYes
DimethylacetamideYesYes
Thinners (containing Benzene, Toluene, Xylene).YesYes
Arsine YesNo
Sulphuric AcidYesYes
ResponseKim Ki-nam, the head of Samsung’s semiconductor business, said: "We sincerely apologise to the workers who suffered from illness and their families. We have failed to properly manage health risks at our semiconductor and LCD factories.”You were not exposed to toxic chemicals.
If you were exposed to toxic chemicals you should have worn the PPE provided.
You should have relied upon the Chemical Training provided.
You should have used common sense.

Note that the “independent third party” investigator, Christopher O’Toole, is a retired barrister from the office of the Attorney General (an office incidentally being sued by exposed personnel..so much for third party independence). O’Toole could find no documentation to back up the Air Corps / State Claims Agency claim that PPE was provided nor that Chemical Training was provided….simply because it WASNT…not until 2017 a full 2 years after the whistleblower’s protected disclosures.

Furthermore O’Toole DID NOT investigate ILLNESS, O’Toole DID NOT investigate CHEMICAL EXPOSURE. O’Toole only really investigated whether documentation to prove Air Corps compliance with Health & Safety legislation existed prior to 2015 and he could find NONE.

My expertise is in the area of law and in carrying out this review it was my intention to examine compliance by the Air Corps with the relevant law and regulation. I was not in a position to consider the substances in use or any implications for human health arising from such use as these issues are outside my competence. The allegations concern both the current health and safety regime and compliance with that regime in a period stretching back over 20 years.

Delay – Deny – Die