New York City is currently experiencing its largest outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease on record. After extensive investigations, cooling towers linked to five commercial properties were determined the likely sources of the disease-causing bacteria. With nearly 100 infected and the potential for more, national attention has sparked a need for a closer look at policies and procedures surrounding the disease. For example, how many institutions are regularly employing Air Duct Cleaning Companies? Quite simply put, more steps need to be taken to mitigate the risk of an outbreak.
Legionnaires’ disease, also referred to as Legionellosis, is a severe type of pneumonia caused by Legionella bacteria. The disease got its name following an outbreak at an American Legion convention in 1976. These naturally occurring bacteria tend to grow in warm water, such as that found in hot tubs, hot water tanks, or large plumbing or air-conditioning systems. While most people exposed to Legionnaires’ disease do not become infected, those who do have a 70-95% survival rate.
Even though the incidence rate for Legionnaires’ disease is relatively low (8,000-18,000 are hospitalized each year), the potential for fatalities is serious. Therefore, it is important that businesses, building owners, and property managers have a mutual understanding of the risks, prevention methods, and responsibilities of all parties involved. As you work with each other to update your policies and procedures around Legionnaires’ disease, consider the following facts:
1. Legionnaires’ cannot spread through human-to-human contact.
Legionella is spread by the inhalation of mist containing the bacteria. If a person exhibiting symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease—cough, shortness of breath, high fever, muscle aches, headaches—is in an office or public environment, he or she poses no threat to others; however, if several people are suffering from these symptoms, building management should be contacted to determine whether or not any of the building’s systems are responsible.
2. Certain groups are more susceptible to contracting the disease than others.
People aged 50 or older, current or former smokers, people with chronic lung disease, people with weak immune systems, and people who take medicines that weaken immune systems are at a higher risk of getting sick. Not only should businesses be aware of staff who fit this description; building owners and property managers should aware of this, as well. A higher number of these individuals requiring medical attention for the above symptoms may indicate the presence of Legionella bacteria.
3. Proper maintenance can prevent Legionellosis.
The Institute of Real Estate Management suggests the following steps be taken to prevent Legionella bacteria from growing:
- Avoid or abandon equipment that creates mists or sprays
- Avoid dead-ends and stagnant corners in pipework
- Design holding tanks for easy cleaning and draining
- Maintain records of testing, maintenance, and prevention; monitor results
- Adopt a comprehensive water treatment program
- Clean and disinfect cooling towers regularly
- Regularly inspect, clean, and disinfect HVAC
- Maintain domestic water heaters at 140ºF (60ºC)
- Avoid locating cold water storage tanks in sunlight; insulate if necessary
- Drain and clean whirlpools and filters regularly, control pH levels
The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) produced standards for minimizing the risk of Legionellosis associated with building water systems. Click here for ways to download a copy.
4. Those at fault can be exposed to substantial legal expenses.
According to the Claims & Litigation Alliance, reported settlements related to medical claims stemming from the mishandling of Legionella ranges from $255,000 to $5.2 million. Not only that, those at fault were also found responsible for the revenue losses of businesses for the duration of the outbreak. For example, a jury awarded damages of $193 million to a cruise line for business interruption losses caused by the equipment manufacturer of indoor spas used onboard their ships. Taking the necessary preventive measures, educating staff and tenants, and responding quickly will not only slow the spread of the disease, it will reduce liability, as well.
Should you suspect an individual has Legionellosis, ensure he or she consults a doctor. If the work environment is believed to be the source of the disease, do not hesitate to contact your local health department. For more information regarding Legionnaires’ disease, visit the Health section of the Knowledge Center, or contact your Customer Success representative.
Marlia Fontaine-Weisse is the Content Manager for Preparis.