Source Identified in Legionnaire Outbreak: Property Managers and Owners on Notice
Legionnaires disease — also called legionellosis — is a bacterial pneumonia so named because the first identified incidence of the disease occurred at a 1976 meeting of the American Legion in Philadelphia. The then mysterious outbreak was traced to the cooling system of the host hotel. The Legionella bacteria can grow in central air conditioning systems (particularly those in office buildings, hotels and hospitals), cooling towers used in industrial cooling systems, evaporative coolers, nebulizers, humidifiers, whirlpool spas, water heating systems, hot tubs, showers, windshield washers, fountains, room-air humidifiers, ice-making machines and misting systems found in grocery-store produce sections.
The outbreak in New York centers on the South Bronx, and sources have been identified as cooling towers on apartment buildings and – ironically – the local city hospital. As of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s August 4th press conference, 86 cases have been identified, eight of this have proven fatal.
Anyone can catch Legionnaire’s disease, but the elderly, immunocompromised, smokers and those with pulmonary (lung) health conditions are more susceptible. Legionnaire’s disease develops two to 10 days after exposure to a legionella bacteria. Symptoms can include headache, muscle pain, chills and fever of 104˚F (40˚C) or higher. Symptoms may intensify several days into the disease, including development of a productive cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, gastrointestinal symptoms (nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea) and mental confusion.
Because the bacteria can travel within an invisible mist or water vapor, it is virtually impossible for the individual to know if exposure has occurred. Public health authorities estimate some 8,000 to 18,000 cases of Legionnaires disease occur each year in the United States. Seeking medical evaluation is important when symptoms are present, as the effectiveness of treatment with antibiotics is increase by early diagnosis.
For property manager and owners, the implications are clear. Maintaining proper chlorination levels in pools, hot tubs and whirlpool spas is common practice. Less common is thorough disinfection of nebulizers, humidifiers, fountains, room-air humidifiers, ice-making machines and retail display misting systems. Commercial air conditioning systems, cooling towers, evaporative coolers (common in the American Southwest) should be maintained and decontaminated in accordance with OSHA recommendations. That system keeping you cool may also be making you sick. As a famous Philadelphian said some two centuries before Legionnaires disease was discovered, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” (Benjamin Franklin).
Unlike the disasters that most companies plan for, a communicable illness/pandemic will not primarily affect equipment and facilities, but rather the people companies depend upon to produce products and services. Additionally, the current assumptions about a pandemic’s duration push the boundaries of most existing absence-from-work policies. Therefore, organizations must thoroughly examine their human resource management practices and policies, refining and/or implementing policies that address the long timeline of a pandemic event. Ensure your business is prepared in case a communicable illness occurs. PREDICT what illnesses could strike, PLAN ahead by preparing – ensuring your company will PERFORM appropriately and survive a crisis.
*photo from: www.thelegionnaireslawyer.com