ISHINOMAKI, Japan – The stench from piles of grimy tsunami debris that soldiers were shoveling from the roadside here last Tuesday was overpowering at times.
Spc. Brent Meadors took the precaution of wearing a face mask as he shoveled the trash but most of his comrades didn’t bother to cover their mouths.
“The mask is just a precaution,” said Meadors, like other Logistics Task Force 35 soldiers working to clear debris from last month’s deadly tsunami, was also wearing a dosimeter that measured the amount of radiation to which he has been exposed.
“There is lots of black tar and muck on the ground and dirt and debris flying and I’d rather not have any accidents,” the 25-year-old Medford, Ore., native said.
In Iwate prefecture, one of the areas badly damaged by the tsunami, the amount of debris is estimated at 6 million tons, according to the prefecture’s Resource Recycling Promotion Division.
To make sure the soldiers aren’t being exposed to harmful substances, 1st Lt. William Wilson, 25, of Denver, an Army environmental health scientist, flew into Ishinomaki to test the soil, air and water in and around places where U.S. personnel are living and working.
“We’re doing an occupational health site assessment,” he said. “We’re testing ... mainly airborne things like asbestos and silica-based compounds. We will also look for radiological things, but that is only a small part.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, particulate matter has been linked to a range of serious respiratory and cardiovascular health problems — asbestos fibers can cause cancer and lung scarring, while silica can also damage lungs when inhaled.
The dangers of inhaling toxins during disaster relief are well documented. This month, the New York Times reported that the Justice Department would soon appoint an official to distribute $2.8 billion in compensation to rescue workers and others who became sick from toxic fumes, dust and smoke from ground zero after the 2001 World Trade Center attack. Last year, U.S. soldiers working amidst the rubble from the Haitian earthquake reported sore throats that they blamed on dust from fallen buildings, although testing of air samples showed later that the dust didn’t contain harmful levels of toxins.
Test samples, from the camp where U.S. personnel are based in Ishinomaki, as well as at schools where they have been helping clear tsunami debris, will be sent to the Public Health Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., for analysis, although results won’t be available for up to eight weeks, Wilson said.
“We don’t assume there is anything bad,” he said. “We just want to make sure there is not.”
Army leaders are advising soldiers working in the disaster zone to be careful when they handle the tsunami debris.
“The medics supply face masks if people ask for them,” Meadors said. “They said: ‘There is a lot of stuff on the ground, be careful about opening your mouth.’”
In contrast to most U.S. troops, many Japan Self-Defense Force personnel wear masks when they work near tsunami debris.
A Japanese Ministry of the Environment spokesman said authorities have yet to tally the total amount of debris generated by the tsunami, let alone catalogue all the harmful waste that it has strewn across the landscape and in the sea.
However shortly after the disaster, the ministry issued manuals advising relief workers how to handle harmful substances in the debris, such as asbestos, infectious waste and polychlorinated biphenyls (or PCBs, listed as cancer causing by the EPA), the spokesman said.
In Iwate prefecture, one of the areas badly damaged by the tsunami, the amount of debris is estimated at 6 million tons, according to Iwate Prefecture’s Resource Recycling Promotion Division.
“Harmful waste, such as asbestos or PCB-containing transformers is apparently everywhere,” said Iwate official Hideyuki Sasaki. “It’s still underneath the rubble.”
Contractors are disposing of much of the debris in Iwate but all are briefed on how to handle harmful materials and are provided with protective equipment, he said.
“It will take at least a year before all the debris is out of public sight,” he said. “Then it’s expected to take three to five years before it’s disposed of properly.”