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.Keeping themselves clean has become a daunting task. Just imagine if these people had to live, you know, normal lives.
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.
Personal hygiene has been a more difficult issue.
Many people use showers at homeless shelters in Skid Row, while some have organized bathing trips to homes, said organizer Gia Trimble.
Others said they used the camp showers on site, filling up a plastic bag with solar-heated water or hot water from a City Hall faucet. The bag, which has a tube to spray the water, hangs from a cord.
"I use the solar-heated shower or even those moist towelettes," Alcala said. "We're clean here."
Campers said they weren't worried about illnesses. Nevertheless, some were taking commonsense precautions.
Tommy Schacht, who was brushing his teeth with bottled water on a recent morning, said he goes home to shower and change clothes, and mostly used bathrooms at nearby businesses or public facilities instead of the portable toilets on site.
"I don't worry about that at all, but I try to stay away from people that are dirty," he said.