Eighty years ago, a seven-year-old St Aloysius student went to the hospital located on the school grounds to see his grandfather who worked there. When he arrived on site, he witnessed a scene that remains etched in his mind.

A young Herbert Lenicker came across “a horrific scenario” – six well-built men were crying loudly, confused, and agitated. Four of them died shortly afterwards.

After leaving school, Lenicker went on to become a paediatrician and now, after searching for answers, he decided to chronicle the story for the first time in the Malta Medical Journal.

On that fateful day in 1942, Lenicker overheard that a number of workers were injured after handling toxic aviation fuel in a railway tunnel at Mtarfa. They were unaware that the fuel containers they were unloading and stacking were leaking.

The incident was never reported in the media, possibly due to security reasons during delicate war times, and there was no public announcement. But the tragedy remained imprinted in Lenicker’s mind.

During the height of World War II in 1942, three-quarters of St Aloysius College in Birkirkara was being used as a civilian hospital for men after being requisitioned by the Medical and Health Department.

The theatre hall of St Aloysius College served as the main ward of the wartime hospital. Photo courtesy of Dr Col Walter Bonnici MD RAMC (Ret) curator of the Malta Garrison website. The theatre hall of St Aloysius College served as the main ward of the wartime hospital. Photo courtesy of Dr Col Walter Bonnici MD RAMC (Ret) curator of the Malta Garrison website. 

70 labourers intoxicated

After many years of searching, Lenicker came across a report on the website of the Royal Army Medical Corps published in the Malta Garrison Report.

It spoke about an incident in 1942 when 70 of 250 labourers were admitted to St Aloysius War Hospital, Birkirkara, with varying severity of neurological symptoms. Four died in hospital.

Lenicker writes: “They were carriers and stackers employed by the Civil Government in unloading and stacking leaking cans of Royal Air Force (RAF) 100-Octane fuel containing tetraethyl lead (TEL) in a disused, poorly ventilated railway tunnel in Mtarfa… The men had been working for some weeks on 12-hour shifts with an hour’s break for meals with two other breaks of half an hour each.”

The carriers took 10 minutes to transport a carton of two four-gallon petrol cans to the end of the tunnel and another 10 minutes to reach the open end for the next load. The stackers were the most affected.

80 years later, and similar events with fatalities at work continue with depressing regularity- Malta Medical Journal editor Simon Attard Montalto

“Mild cases had soreness of eyes and throat, headaches, nausea and breathing difficulties. The more severely affected had vertigo, loss of power in their legs, profuse salivation, involuntary jerking of the muscles of the face and hands (myoclonus), and loss of consciousness,” the report said.

The report also made reference to a 38-year-old man who had been working for four weeks in the tunnel prior to the onset of his symptoms. 

“He complained of giddiness, headache, difficulty in swallowing, profuse salivation and lower limb weakness. He was admitted to St Aloysius College Hospital on the 25th of December.  He became delirious and incontinent with a coarse tremor of the upper limbs.”

He lapsed into a coma and had generalised convulsive movements for two to three days prior to his death. His post-mortem showed brain oedema and petechial haemorrhages in the subthalamic region. It was concluded that the symptoms   were   due   to intoxication from petrol fumes rather than tetraethyl lead.

A toxic fuel

Lenicker explains that the toxic agent, RAF 100-octane fuel was developed in 1921 by Thomas Midgley Junior, at General Motors, US. Midgley showed that lead, made soluble in gasoline as TEL, could quench the free radicals responsible for the ‘cool’ flame in engines that caused ‘knocking’. It also boosted engine power.

This fuel was very expensive and had to be brought to Malta from the US. When supplies were threateningly low, the fuel was delivered to Malta by submarine and unloaded at the Mtarfa tunnels by Maltese labourers – some of whom suffered poisoning.

While single cases of such intoxication were reported in the UK, the 1942 incident in Malta seems to have been the first experience locally.

Immediate remedial action

After the incident, the Chief Government Medical Officer, Prof. Albert V. Bernard, notified the secretary to government and made various recommendations. These included improving ventilation, that men engaged should not work for longer than two hours at a stretch, and that men showing signs of illness should be immediately relieved from work.

Immediate action followed and all recommendations were taken on board within days.

In his foreword to Lenicker’s editorial, Malta Medical Journal editor Simon Attard Montalto wrote that this story was valuable because of the lessons learnt.

“80 years later, and similar events with fatalities at work continue with depressing regularity… In contrast, today there are no excuses that can ‘justify’ the general sloppiness and, in many cases, the total disregard of anything to do with health and safety that prevails on a daily basis at numerous workplaces in Malta. Indeed, those in authority today should learn from the lesson presented by their counterparts in 1942 who took immediate and effective action to address their own health and safety crisis almost a century ago.”

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