Foodborne Illness Risks at Occupy Wall Street Protests?

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Foodborne illnesses can be spread to Occupy Protesters when food safety precautions are not taken. Photo by: David Shankborne.

Zuccotti Park has become an unsanitary home to thousands of protesters – most of whom are apparently not interested in keeping it clean.

The Wall Street Journal interviewed Max Hodles, who is part of the Occupy Wall Street’s Sanitation Committee. When asked about the sanitation committee, Holdes states, “The biggest challenge has been staffing so far. My concerns are people don’t want to clean.

They think they are above it because they are doing something else. No one actually wants to clean, not even the people on this committee.”

In addition to the general risks associated with these unclean living conditions, such as contaminated water and dysentry, OWS protesters are at risk of contracting a variety of foodborne illnesses.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the three most common foodborne illnesses are salmonella, campylobacter, and E. coli.

What is Salmonella?

Salmonella bacteria invading a human cell. Photo by: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH.

Salmonella is a bacterium, and the most commonly reported foodborne illness, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Salmonella lives in the intestinal tract of humans and animals, and can be passed to other humans and animals through their feces. Most people become sick with salmonella after eating undercooked meat and poultry that has been contaminated with the bacteria. You can also get sick with salmonella if you do not thoroughly wash your hands after using the restroom, or eat food prepared or handled by someone who has not thoroughly washed his or her hands.

Symptoms of salmonella infection, including diarrhea, vomiting, fever, chills, headache and abdominal cramps, usually begin within eight to 72 hours after eating contaminated food, and go away after five to seven days.

What is Campylobacter?

Strains of campylobacter. Photo by: Microbe World

Campylobacter is also a bacterium, and the second most common cause of foodborne illnesses, reports the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. Campylobacter is found in the intestinal tract of wild birds, rodents, poultry, swine, cattle, cats, dogs, and sometimes in humans. Animals and people who are infected pass the bacteria in their feces, and contaminate the environment. You can become infected by drinking untreated water, or consuming undercooked meats and poultry.

Rats and mice, common rodents in areas with piles of trash and unclean conditions, can infect protesters by shedding their feces on or around food, water, and sleeping bags. Protesters who come in contact with the infected feces can quickly become infected with campylobacter.

Symptoms of campylobacter infection (which include fever, abdominal cramping and diarrhea, which is sometimes bloody) generally begin two to ten days after coming in contact with the bacteria. Not all people with campylobacter will show symptoms; those who do can expect to be sick for about a week.

What is E. Coli?

Escherichia coli are a group of bacteria that are mostly harmless. One type, E. coli O157:H7, however, can make you really sick. This bacterium lives in the intestines of birds, reptiles, and mammals, and can infect people via uncooked food, animals, and improper restroom hygiene, according to the Mayo Clinic.

E. coli bacteria. Photo by: Microbe World

Symptoms (which include diarrhea, which can be severe and bloody, abdominal cramping, nausea and vomiting) usually begin the day you come in contact with E. Coli, and last up to a week.

Prevention of Foodborne Illnesses

Preventing foodborne illnesses is extremely important, especially in large groups such as the Occupy Wall Street protest, where one person can infect many people. The OWS protesters can reduce or prevent foodborne illnesses during the protest by following these suggestions:

  • Protesters should wash hands well with soap and water after using the restroom or before preparing, handling, or eating food.
  • Food preparation committees should cook food thoroughly and refrigerate perishables.
  • OWS attendees should avoid leaving non-perishable food lying around to attract animals and rodents.
  • OWS groups should consider allowing the park owners to send in cleaning crews. A clean environment where pests and rodents cannot congregate is important to avoiding contact with animal feces or other waste that can contaminate food and water supplies and sicken large groups of people.

*Occupy Wall Street was contacted for a response, but has not yet provided a comment*

 Resources:

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. Campylobacter Questions and Answers. Accessed October 18, 2011.

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. Safe Food Handling. June 29, 2011. Accessed October 20, 2011.

Mayo Clinic: E. coli. July 28, 2011. Accessed on October 18, 2011.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Foodborne Illnesses. Accessed October 17, 2011.

Wall Street Journal. Zuccotti Park Gets a Visit From the Mayor. October 12, 2011. Accessed October 19, 2011.

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