October 27, 2011

'Occupy' protesters cope with sanitation

Christina Hoag, The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — With thousands of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators roughing it in parks for up to six weeks, garbage, human waste and hygiene are becoming a growing worry in public encampments nationwide.

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Occupy Wall Street protesters sleep in New York's Zuccotti Park on Sunday. With thousands of people roughing it in parks for up to six weeks related to the "Occupy" demonstrations, public health is a growing worry in the encampments.


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Poor food storage exacerbated a rat infestation in Oakland. Inspectors found open human waste in Philadelphia. Hypothermia cases developed in Denver after a snowstorm hit.

Disease is the chief concern with so many people living in close quarters without proper sanitation.

"Any time you have a large number of people in an event like this, there's potential for illness to spread rapidly," said Angelo Bellomo, director of environmental health for Los Angeles County. "Conditions can change within an hour or two."

Poor food storage, along with public urination and defecation, led Oakland police to dislodge 200 protesters from a plaza outside City Hall before dawn Tuesday.

In Philadelphia, sanitary conditions have worsened at the 350-tent Occupy Philly camp, said city managing director Richard Negrin. The camp has four portable toilets that have not been cleaned or emptied regularly.

Health officials, who conduct daily inspections of Los Angeles' camp, have directed organizers to dispose of wastewater from portable showers into drains rather than the ground, and to increase the number of portable toilets, have them emptied twice a day and provide water jugs for hand-washing.

Close-quarters living can facilitate the spread of germs through airborne, foodborne or person-to-person contact. Norovirus has caused outbreaks of gastroenteritis on cruise ships, for example, while adenovirus has caused influenza and other respiratory illnesses in military barracks.

So far, no outbreaks of illness have been reported from the grassroots demonstrations that have sprouted nationwide to oppose policies viewed as promoting corporate greed. Medical tents in Los Angeles have only treated minor ailments such as scrapes and colds.

Protesters in Denver, however, said they took two demonstrators to a hospital with symptoms of hypothermia during an snowstorm that started Tuesday night.

Some demonstrators complain that the health issues have been exaggerated as a pretext to crack down on the camps. Authorities did not seem to be concerned about unhygienic conditions that existed before, they said.

"They never go and clean up Skid Row," said Juan Alcala, a camper in Los Angeles, where more than 350 tents are jammed on a lawn around City Hall.

The protesters are taking pains to keep the premises clean but acknowledge it's an ongoing battle to keep up as tents proliferate and attract the attention of public health officials.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told the Los Angeles Times that county health inspectors have expressed concerns over the cleanliness of the camp. The mayor also said the city's lawn and trees are suffering.

"The lawn is dead, our sprinklers aren't working ... our trees are without water," Villaraigosa told the Times.

Although protesters formed a sanitation committee from the start, hygiene issues have gotten more complicated than Occupy LA organizers anticipated.

The camp is largely well kept, although numerous trash bins around the site were overflowing during recent visits. Organizers pay a private hauler $57 a week to collect the rubbish daily after being fined by the city for failing to remove trash.

As the scent of marijuana wafted in the air and drumbeats sounded in a steady rhythm, organizers roamed the camp, urging people to pick up their trash and not to walk barefoot. Most people complied and some pitched in. Alcala seized a large palm frond and swept concrete walkways.

Protesters said overall, people were careful about rubbish. "I smoke and I'm really conscious about not throwing my butts on the ground," said another camper, John Waiblinger.

Personal hygiene has been a more difficult issue.

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