The stench of burning military waste in Iraq and Afghanistan – poisonous pollutants suspected of causing serious health problems for returning soldiers – has influenced a Washington man’s decision to pursue a career in environmental contamination.
Jacob Odekirk, 24, is a Marine Corps combat veteran who was deployed to Iraq in 2007 and 2009 for a total of 14 months. He is one of thousands of service members exposed to the acrid smoke from open-air burn pits and left wondering if they’ll get sick from it one day.
“We’re talking about a lot of plastic, we’re talking about medical waste – quite a few bad things,” Odekirk said.
He recalls waking in the morning with his airways burning. The sand and dust storms were bad enough on the lungs, he said. “The burn pits didn’t help.”
Odekirk graduated this month from the University of Idaho at Coeur d’Alene with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and is enrolled in the university’s new professional science master’s degree program.
He said he’d like to help mitigate the impact of dangerous wastes in war zones. “Would I love the opportunity to deal with the military in this specific exposure? Absolutely,” he said. “If I could get research to go to Afghanistan and take soil samples for them, I’d be involved.”
Odekirk grew up in St. Maries, found himself drawn to the outdoors and biology, and enlisted soon after graduating from high school there in 2006. He achieved the rank of corporal during his four years on active duty in 1st Battalion 7th Marines as a rifleman and shooting coach.
He first served east of Al Asad Airbase in the Al Anbar province, then northwest of Fallujah on his return to Iraq. Regardless of size, all combat outposts burned their refuse in open pits, he said. Everything would go in: batteries, munitions, plastics, rubber, petroleum.
Joint Base Balad in Iraq burned up to 200 tons of solid waste per day in 2007, according to military reports. Smaller groups – platoons and squads – often burned refuse near where they slept and ate, Odekirk said.
“These guys don’t have very much space. Their burn pit is yards or even feet away from their living quarters,” he said.
He added, “It makes for a pretty dangerous respiratory exposure for those surrounding that area, whether it be military personnel or the local population.”
They also usually lacked running water, preventing them from showering or washing their clothes for long stretches and increasing the risk of dermal exposure to chemical deposits from the smoke, Odekirk said.
Worse still, multiple deployments – common for combat veterans during the two wars – compounded the exposure risk, he said.
“I did two; a lot of the people in my company did three or four. I had a sergeant who was on his seventh combat tour with us in 2009,” Odekirk said.
Military exposure guidelines address 12 months of exposure, but Marines and Army soldiers typically would put in twice as much time. And many of those have experienced a host of health problems, including chronic bronchitis, asthma, rashes, joint pain and cancers.
The Institute of Medicine last year issued a report saying existing data are too limited to conclusively link burn-pit smoke and fumes to lung, heart and skin disorders in returning troops.
Ongoing studies suggest there is real cause for concern, however. An animal study this year at Stony Brook School of Medicine pointed to a link between particulate matter from the burn pits and depleted immune systems.
The Defense Department and Veterans Affairs Department this year embarked on a joint study of deployment-related airborne pollution, including whether troops should receive baseline tests of how well their lungs work before and after deployment. In addition, Congress is considering legislation to create a registry of veterans who served near burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On his second deployment, Odekirk was taking independent study courses through the UI to get a jump on his degree. His interest in the burn pits also was growing at this time, and he began wondering about prolonged exposure for troops who also are coping with other health stresses.
The 2011 Institutes of Medicine study examined 51 pollutants associated with the burn pits. “When we test chemicals we take one at a time and test mice,” Odekirk said. “What happens when you have 51 and you also have sleep deprivation?”
He has not yet experienced health problems that may be associated with exposure to the toxic smoke, but he also knows it may take years for the effects to show up.
For now, he plans to complete his master’s work in the next 18 months, then start looking for a job. Odekirk can’t be sure he’ll work directly on this issue after he completes his GI Bill-funded education. The field of environmental contamination is a wide one.
“There are many other exposures in many other areas of the world that need questions to be answered.”