Soldier tackling problem of hospital waste disposal
Stars and Stripes June 9, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — 1st Sgt. Eric Clemens said he watched in disbelief as a stray cat dragged a human hand from a pile of garbage dumped in the street outside of a Baghdad hospital.
With no incinerator or proper place to dispose of medical and biological waste — and even bodies — the staff at the hospital and university in downtown Baghdad have resorted to dumping it in the Tigris River or in any nook or cranny just outside the hospital compound walls, said Clemens, commander of Company B, 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment of the Army’s 1st Armored Division.
Clemens’ reaction when he sees the dumping of waste might be drastic, but necessary, he said.
“I pull out my pistol and tell them to take it back,” the Friedburg, Germany–based soldier said while showing two of the dump sites, which contained blood-saturated bandages, IV bags, syringes and needles, mounds of other garbage and hundreds of swarming flies.
No body parts were visible in the waste Saturday, though no one went rummaging through the heaps.
The section of Baghdad called Medical City contains one of the city’s two main hospitals, the teaching medical university, a nursing home, a nursing school and a blood bank.
The hospital’s sole incinerator no longer works after looters took motors and wiring during the chaotic weeks following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime on April 9.
“It makes me sad and so, so angry, but there is nothing we can do about it,” said Dr. Bahaa M. Alani, a radiologist at the hospital who speaks English. “There is no where to take it, and it is making a very big problem.”
The staff hired to dispose of the waste isn’t being paid, Clemens said.
“They’re volunteering and with no incentive to do the right thing, they’re tossing it in the river and on the street,” he said.
Clemens is trying to fix the problem and rid his section of the health hazard, for the community as well as for his troops. But he hasn’t seen much support from the higher echelons of the Army, and requests for an incinerator, or even motors or anything to rectify the problem have gone unanswered.
So he’s asked a translator to find him a welder who will build a metal box in which the waste can be dumped and burned, Clemens said.
The smell around the hospital grounds is enough to bowl you over — especially in Baghdad’s 110-plus degree heat, though patients and passersby walk past the mound of garbage without a second glance.
“Be careful walking down the street,” Clemens said. “If you’re shuffling, you could be stuck with a needle.”
Clemens’ mission doesn’t include finding a solution to the biohazard problem, he said. “But this is the right thing to do.”
Sgt. Jermaine Ellington, 25, said he never will forget the smell at the blood bank a few days after the power went out.
“It smelled like straight spoiled meat,” Ellington said. “I didn’t puke, but it’s nothing you get used to. We dealt with it because we had to.”