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.

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

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

The tiniest trickle of blood – Another human cost of the Irish Air Corps Toxic Chemical Health & Safety scandal

The tiniest trickle of blood

My father was an aircraft technician in the Air Corps at Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel for 21 years. During his time there he worked on a variety of aircraft and worked with an assortment of chemicals and sprays often without, as he said himself, even glove protection.

Over that time he developed severe psoriasis on his body, but in particular his hands and legs. This resulted in intense itch and pain and a daily routine of medication and treatment of the various lesions on his legs and also a stay in St. Bricin’s Hospital. It was not until a combination of appointments with a renowned Traditional Medical Herbalist, coupled with his retirement from the Air Corps that improvements began. This psoriasis, while appearing at a much slighter level during his life, never appeared to the same extent after leaving Baldonnel.

My mother passed away in 2009, and since then Dad lived with my wife and I, and subsequently, our two daughters. He adored his family and his granddaughters. He also really enjoyed an active and healthy life, learning to swim, regularly walking, going dancing, and eating very healthily. He liked his few social pints but gave up smoking before his first granddaughter was born eight years ago. He also had regular full check-ups with his GP.

In December 2013, while Dad was feeling very well, in great form, he spotted the tiniest trickle of blood in his urine. After attending his GP and a urologist, it was confirmed that he had renal cancer, which had completely taken over one of his kidneys and indeed had also spread to his lungs. Treatment was possible but immediate: he would need to have his kidney removed and a tablet form of chemotherapy would need to be taken for the rest of his life. Thankfully medical advances had developed this treatment, otherwise he would not have survived.

Almost two years passed and Dad had little or no side-effects to his treatment other than his dark hair turning grey overnight. He maintained his life as it was, keeping up his hobbies and his active lifestyle, as well as continuing his breaks to Lanzarote. Unfortunately in November 2015, things began to change and his body rejected the tablet. He became very ill with a litany of mystery illnesses that befuddled doctors but, miraculously, he managed to survive and came home. However, he spent his New Year’s Day in A&E, complaining of intense pain in his back. On examination and scanning, it was found that he had a broken vertebrae due to cancer spreading to his back. Again, thankfully it was in the position that it was, as it was treatable and would not end up with him in a wheelchair. Inserting rods either side of his spine meant that he would walk again.

The last months of his life were a mix of regular check-ups, consultant appointments, progress and setbacks. It was a roller-coaster of emotions where his unyielding positivity was tested repeatedly but never left him. 

It would have been interesting to see if his background in Baldonnel could have informed his treatment, or if indeed anything could have been done to prevent his disease. However such thoughts are merely conjecture and would distract from the magnificent memories we hold of a man who touched so many hearts and leaves behind a legacy fitting for such a character.

Biological monitoring for Isocyanates

Organic diisocyanates are a significant occupational health problem.

They are respiratory and skin sensitizers and a major cause of occupational asthma in the UK. The most common are hexamethylene diisocyanate (HDI), toluene diisocyanate (TDI), isopherone diisocyanate (IPDI) and methylene-diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI) in decreasing order of volatility. HDI and IPDI are used for varnishes, coatings and two-pack spray paints used in motor vehicle repair. TDI and MDI are used for flexible and rigid polyurethane foams, floor coverings and adhesives. This wide range of uses means that there are thousands of workers potentially exposed to isocyanates.

In the UK, a management control system is required for workers exposed to isocyanates and for this to be successful workers should not become sensitized. Apart from occupational asthma, airway irritation and asthma-like symptoms such as cough, wheezing and dyspnoea are commonly reported. Other respiratory effects are hypersensitivity pneumonitis, rhinitis and accelerated rate of decline in lung function. Diisocyanates can also cause both irritant and allergic contact dermatitis as well as skin and conjunctival irritation.

Health surveillance that detects occupational asthma is recording failure – there needs to be intervention earlier in the exposure-to-disease paradigm. Although there is evidence that detecting respiratory symptoms early and removing workers from exposure improves prognosis, the goal should be to control exposure to prevent any symptoms.

Please read more on the Society of Occupational Medicine website from September 2007.


This is a long article but a very informative read and is especially relevant for those on post 1995 contracts who were dismissed from the Irish Army Air Corps due to occupational asthma.

Profile of patients with chemical injury and sensitivity

Patients reporting sensitivity to multiple chemicals at levels usually tolerated by the healthy population were administered standardised questionnaires to evaluate their symptoms and the exposures that aggravated these symptoms. Many patients were referred for medical tests.

It is thought that patients with chemical sensitivity have organ abnormalities involving the liver, nervous system (brain, including limbic, peripheral, autonomic), immune system, and porphyrin metabolism, probably reflecting chemical injury to these systems. Laboratory results are not consistent with a psychological origin of chemical sensitivity.

Substantial overlap between chemical sensitivity, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome exists: the latter two conditions often involve chemical sensitivity and may even be the same disorder. Other disorders commonly seen in chemical sensitivity patients include headache (often migraine), chronic fatigue, musculoskeletal aching, chronic respiratory inflammation (rhinitis, sinusitis, laryngitis, asthma), attention deficit, and hyperactivity (affected younger children). Less common disorders include tremor, seizures, and mitral valve prolapse. Patients with these overlapping disorders should be evaluated for chemical sensitivity and excluded from control groups in future research.

Agents whose exposures are associated with symptoms and suspected of causing onset of chemical sensitivity with chronic illness include gasoline, kerosene, natural gas, pesticides (especially chlordane and chlorpyrifos), solvents, new carpet and other renovation materials, adhesives/glues, fiberglass, carbonless copy paper, fabric softener, formaldehyde and glutaraldehyde, carpet shampoos (lauryl sulfate) and other cleaning agents, isocyanates, combustion products (poorly vented gas heaters, overheated batteries), and medications (dinitrochlorobenzene for warts, intranasally packed neosynephrine, prolonged antibiotics, and general anesthesia with petrochemicals).

Multiple mechanisms of chemical injury that magnify response to exposures in chemically sensitive patients can include neurogenic inflammation (respiratory, gastrointestinal, genitourinary), kindling and time-dependent sensitisation (neurologic), impaired porphyrin metabolism (multiple organs), and immune activation.

Please download the full report from US National Library of Medicine
National Institutes of Health.