PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – The U.S. military is testing samples of soil, water and air from hundreds of sites in Haiti to determine if troops could have been exposed to hazardous substances during earthquake relief efforts.

Preventive medicine teams from the Army, Air Force and Navy have collected the samples, which include rubble from collapsed buildings and dust churned up by rubble removal, from sites where military personnel have worked over the past two months, according to Maj. Rebecca Carter, 43, an Air Force environmental engineer working in Port-au-Prince.

U.S. personnel in the Haitian capital have been working in the middle of an environmental nightmare since the Jan. 13 earthquake. Corpses still lie in the streets or buried under heaps of rubble. Rivers and streams are overflowing with trash that flows into the ocean to wash up on local beaches each morning.

Troops have also been assisting homeless Haitians in overcrowded and unsanitary camps and working in overburdened medical facilities where infectious diseases are a hazard.

Carter said she’s not prepared to release a list of contaminants for which the military is testing.

“I would only prefer to say that we are sampling for a wide range of chemicals of concern,” she said.

Members of the 82nd Airborne Division who have been helping clear rubble from downtown Port-au-Prince for the past month have reported sore throats and coughs that they believe may be related to dust that they breathe in during missions.

Sgt. 1st Class Ernest Rodriguez, 37, of Camden, N.J., said his platoon provides security during rubble removal missions every three days. On recent missions, soldiers spent 12-hour shifts standing among the debris while bulldozers churned up clouds of thick dust.

“It depends on where you are standing and which way the wind is blowing,” Rodriguez said. “The dust can get pretty thick in the air when they start moving all that rubble.”

Navy personnel visited rubble removal sites to take air-quality samples, putting out air pumps for three hours at a time, he said.

“You tend to cough a lot and you get a sore throat,” he said. “It could be a lot of other factors but I’m pretty sure dust is a big part of it.”

Some Haitians wear surgical masks to protect themselves from the dust and disease in the city. The Army provides the infantrymen with masks but the tropical heat makes wearing them uncomfortable and many soldiers only use them when the dust is at its thickest.

“It’s 97 degrees out here and the mask also impedes communication when you are trying to do crowd control,” Rodriguez said.

Other members of the 82nd said they had worked closely with people suffering from communicable diseases during a mission at Port-au-Prince’s main hospital.

Sgt. 1st Class Haven Crecelius, 29, of Denison, Iowa, said he was tasked with collecting patients suffering from communicable diseases from throughout the hospital and taking them to an isolation tent.

“There were a couple with open sores and people with tuberculosis. If they cough on you, you can contract it through your eyes,” he said, adding that he was issued a mask with eye protection.

However, another soldier who helped gather up the patients, Pfc. Daniel Eldien, 20, of Andover, Minn., said it was only after he escorted a half-naked Haitian woman to the isolation tent that he learned she had tuberculosis. He wasn’t wearing a mask at the time, he said.

“When we get back, they are going to test us for stuff like tuberculosis, HIV and malaria,” he said.

Several soldiers have already contracted malaria during the mission to Haiti. The disease is borne by mosquitoes and U.S. personnel in Haiti are required to take anti-malarial preventive medications. A civil affairs officer working with the 82nd, referred to only as Capt. Mike because of the normally secretive nature of his unit’s work, spends his days visiting camps in the capital. Many are strewn with trash and have open pits full of human waste nearby.

Last week, during a visit to a slum named Bel Air, the civil affairs soldiers walked through a smoke-shrouded marketplace where fly-infested piles of raw meat were sold within a short distance of a towering pile of burning refuse. Nearby, children played beside a pond of stagnant purple water while pigs and goats feasted in an overflowing dumpster.

“Their primary source of fuel is charcoal,” Capt. Mike said as a cloud of black smoke drifted through the slum. “And the air quality in the rubble is much worse than in the rest of the city.”

It’s going to take a while before the military knows exactly which contaminants personnel may have been exposed to, said Carter, who works out of a laboratory housed in a tent at the airport in Port-au-Prince.

Samples that the Air Force team has taken, from locations that include the airport, the site of an Air force Expeditionary Medical Support Hospital and the ruins of the Hotel Montana, will be sent to the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland for testing, she said.

Results won’t be available until the center has finished testing the samples, Carter said.

“We didn’t know what was here coming in,” she said. “Our mission is to put together as much information as we can while we are here so we can document any potential exposure.”

author picture
Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now