- Associated Press - Thursday, October 27, 2011

LOS ANGELES (AP) - 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.

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 proximity 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.

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