Disease-causing pathogens love garbage, says a U.S. microbiologist who has studied household and municipal trash.
Charles Gerba pointed out that while flies and cockroaches are the pests that will be most obvious when Vancouver's garbage starts to pile up because of the civic strike, it's the growth of microscopic bacteria like salmonella and shigella that should be of concern to authorities. These cause stomach disorders like severe diarrhea, and according to the University of Arizona professor, one in every 1,000 cases of salmonella infection in the U.S. results in death.
"They could grow on food debris, food leftovers, disposable baby diapers, [and] pet feces," Gerba told the Georgia Straight, on the line from his Tucson office. "The more food debris, the more biodegradable stuff, the better the salmonella do."
Gerba has done research with the Garbage Project, which was started by archaeologist William Rathje in the States in the 1970s. The project involves combing through American landfills in a quest to study human behaviour.
Interviewed during Vancouver's 1997 garbage strike, Gerba told the Straight that he found it "incredible" that health departments weren't taking immediate action and that the accumulation of garbage "endangers public health".
"Especially in the summer when it's warm, your vector increase would be your biggest problem," Gerba said in a phone interview on July 20, one day after outside city workers commenced their current job action. He explained that pathogens can be spread not only by insects but by pets like dogs and cats.
Human beings can also pass on these bugs. "You get it in your hands when you handle garbage," Gerba said. "You get it into fingers, into your mouth when you make food, into other objects, and transfer it to other human beings."
There's also the danger posed by viruses, which Gerba said are found in baby diapers. Baby stool contains rotaviruses that can cause stomach problems for children. "Even if there is a very small amount of feces in baby diapers, you can still have millions of virus [particles]," he said. "You gotta get rid of the diapers."
Gerba warned that health risks increase as a strike drags on. Garbage "starts accumulating in the streets and the bags can break", he said. "What happens over time, the bags start getting punctured, garbage starts overflowing."
Nick Losito, regional director of health protection for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, told the Straight that 28 health inspectors are monitoring the situation across the city. He noted that the wet weather has kept the uncollected garbage "cooled down".
"If the weather gets really hot”¦there may be some situations in different parts of the city," he said. "It would generate more odour complaints and the garbage would tend to attract rodents and flies and insects more readily than if it was damp, coolish weather."
Losito acknowledged that there will be some bacterial growth with the trash pileup. But he asserted, "As long as the public isn't digging into that garbage or consuming the food out of that garbage, it's [bacteria is] not something that typically drifts through the air and gets into people's systems."
Asked about potential risks to public health by rodents being attracted to garbage, Losito recalled having stated in past media interviews that rats and mice in the city are "generally healthy".
"They don't carry a lot of the diseases that you would normally be concerned about, but you also don't want them getting into your dwelling place or into your restaurant because they can spread bacteria and filth around," Losito said.
VCHA spokesperson Viviana Zanocco told the Straight that public-health issues will be addressed by city and regional authorities as they arise. "It would have to be a public-health risk or public-health hazard," Zanocco said. "So that would have to be like severe rat infestation, and that's never been experienced."
Fiona Brinkman, an associate professor in SFU's department of molecular biology and biochemistry, noted that not all bacteria are bad and that only a certain class make people sick.
"When you have garbage, you're going to have a lot of microbes," Brinkman told the Straight. "Microbes are small organisms, and they include bacteria. A small proportion of bacteria cause disease, and any bacterial microbe is called [a] pathogen. These enterobacteria are a concern because they cause disease."
She said that in particular, young children and the elderly are at risk of contracting stomach disorders like diarrhea from types of enterobacteria like salmonella, shigella, and E. coli.
"These bugs mainly cause intestinal illnesses, but in some cases they can get so serious that the person loses so much water they can go into shock and die," Brinkman warned. "The biggest concern is that if this [the strike] goes on for weeks, then definitely we'll have a bit of a risk."
Brinkman also said that enterobacteria thrive on food debris and leftovers. "One of the issues we always face is we have bacteria that like to grow on food products because they like to grow on nutrient-rich material, of which we are a source," she said.
She also noted that plant waste like vegetable peelings gets "nicely degraded" compared to meat-based garbage. Meat consumption is "the one you'll want to minimize" during a garbage strike, she said.
Residents can mitigate the growth of pathogens by reducing organic waste in their trash.
Brock Macdonald, executive director of the Recycling Council of B.C., told the Straight that 40 to 45 percent of solid waste generated in the GVRD is organic matter, and another 17 percent is food-related.
Macdonald suggests that residents compost organic matter, like vegetable peelings. He added that those who generate very small amounts of waste can even bag it and put it in the freezer. Consumers can also buy items in bulk to cut down on the amount of packaging.
The on-line BC HealthGuide handbook (www.bchealthguide.org/) contains several tips on how to prevent infection caused by salmonella and shigella. It advises thoroughly cooking all foods that come from animal sources–particularly poultry, egg products, and meat dishes. People should also protect prepared foods from rodent and insect contamination. As well, the handbook states that simple hygiene practices like frequent hand-washing and basic food-safety precautions can prevent shigella infection.