Allergic reaction to smoke grenade killed soldier

Pte Lee’s mother Felicia Seah and his brother Daryl Shane (above) leaving the court yesterday. The family says that when Pte Lee (inset) was screened, the doctor should have asked for his medical records.

SINGAPORE - Private Dominique Sarron Lee did not die from a severe asthma attack but from an acute allergic reaction to a key compound used in smoke grenades, a coroner's inquiry into his death found on Friday.

This concurs with the findings by a Committee of Inquiry (COI), which was convened last year when the 21-year-old died after suffering breathing difficulties during a training exercise.

Pte Lee passed out during the exercise in Lim Chu Kang in April last year, which involved the use of six smoke grenades. He later died in hospital.

"The cause of the demise is not due to severe asthmatic attack," said state coroner Imran Abdul Hamid on Friday, dismissing claims by Pte Lee's family that the full-time serviceman (NSF) died from asthma. He died because of an allergic reaction to zinc chloride fumes, Mr Imran added.

Delivering his findings on Friday, the state coroner also said that Pte Lee had "underplayed and underdeclared" his asthma history during a pre-enlistment medical check-up.

Pte Lee, a former track athlete from the Singapore Sports School, had been declared fit enough to undergo combat training. But at the previous hearing last month, the court was told that Pte Lee gave inaccurate information about his asthma attacks during the check-up at the Central Manpower Base.

On Jan 4, 2011, the serviceman said "yes" in the check box under asthma/lung disease and declared that his last asthma attack was more than three years ago. But a medical report from a general practitioner at a Tampines clinic who treated him showed that he last suffered an attack on Oct 25, 2010.

Said Mr Imran: "There is a real obligation...to ensure the accuracy of the medical information provided so that if need be, further clinical investigations can be made." He added that it was "difficult to accept" that doctors at the pre-enlistment screening ought to thoroughly investigate every enlistee.

Friday's findings capped the end of the coroner's inquest which started in April this year, more than nine months after an independent COI found that the number of smoke grenades used in the training exceeded the limit specified in training safety regulations. No more than two smoke grenades should have been used for a training area of that size.

Mr Imran agreed with the COI findings, saying that Captain Najib Hanik Muhammad Jalal, then the platoon commander in the 3rd Battalion Singapore Infantry Regiment, had used "more smoke grenades than was necessary". The state coroner also agreed with senior consultant forensic pathologist Wee Keng Poh, who performed the autopsy, that Pte Lee's asthmatic condition made him more predisposed to having an allergic reaction.

Pte Lee's parents, younger brother and uncle were present at the inquest. Also present were officials from the Defence Ministry, including the Singapore Armed Forces Chief of Medical Corps, Brigadier- General Kang Wee Lee.

Pte Lee's mother Felicia Seah was seen breaking down in tears after the finding was delivered.

His uncle Sean Seah said the family rejected the coroner's findings, arguing that the military doctor at the medical screening should have asked for Pte Lee's medical records rather than just depending on what the serviceman had said.

"Putting the onus on enlistees and parents to declare all medical conditions is not correct," he said.

"If that is the recommendation, then parents need to be present at the medical screening to seek second opinion and challenge the medical classification."

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.