Over the past few weeks, there have been reports of a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak that has left one person dead and six others sick in New York City. Although this is sad news for any community, this is hardly the first encounter with the dangerous germ that causes pneumonia. Last year, two babies delivered during water births contracted the potentially deadly disease. In 2015, Flint, Michigan experienced a deadly outbreak that killed twelve people and made ninety more sick. Even as recently as earlier this month, a New York police officer contracted the disease, potentially from showering in the precinct.
So, what is Legionnaire’s Disease? According to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), it is a form of pneumonia that is caused by the germ Legionella that infects between 8,000-18,000 people in the United States every year. Although Legionnaire’s Disease is a respiratory disease, it is also a waterborne disease that grows and spreads in showers and faucets, cooling towers, hot tubs, decorative fountains, hot water tanks and heaters, large plumbing systems, and other man-made structures. The CDC seems to be particularly wary of hot tubs, since the disease grows better in warm water. Legionnaire’s Disease is contracted by people breathing in water particles, such as mist or “small-droplets of water”, that contain Legionella or by getting water into their windpipes, although this is less common.
Although there is no vaccine for Legionnaires’ Disease, there are ways to lower the risk of exposure to Legionella. The CDC recommends hot tub owners check regularly for proper “disinfectant and other chemical levels”. This is especially important because warm water makes it more difficult to maintain proper water chemical levels. The CDC also offers a link to a risk-management guide for building water-systems throughout the “design, manufacture, and maintaining” processes by The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).
Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech Professor, explained the importance of anti-corrosives in water through his research on the Flint, MI outbreak. Anti-corrosives were not placed in water after the city switched its water source. This caused the water to corrode lead and iron pipes. The lack of anti-corrosives caused disinfectants to leave the water and allowed iron to act as a nutrient for Legionella.
Legionnaire’s Disease shows us how fundamentally integrated water is in our daily lives. Water is used for aesthetic pleasure, relaxation, drinking, air-conditioning, bathroom function, and other purposes. The disease also illustrates the importance of proper maintenance of water and water infrastructure. As the disease demonstrates, without proper care, chemicals, maintenance, monitoring, and infrastructure, our access to safe water can come under threat.
Nicole Darrah, Legionnaires’ Outbreak hits NYC, Fox News (June 16, 2017), http://www.foxnews.com/us/2017/06/16/legionnaires-outbreak-hits-nyc.html.
Respiratory Infections, CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/swimmers/rwi/respiratory-infections.html (last updated May 4, 2016).
Nadia Kounang, Legionnaires’ Cases Among Newborns Raise Questions About Water Births, CNN (June 20, 2017), http://www.cnn.com/2017/06/20/health/water-birth-legionnaires-disease/index.html.
Sara Ganim, Flint Water Crisis Likely the cause of deadly Legionnaires Outbreak, CNN (Mar. 30, 2017 9:43 AM), http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/30/health/legionnaires-disease-flint-water-crisis-study/index.html.
Kristine Phillips, Officers at New York Precinct Told not to Shower at Station after Fears of Legionnaires’ Disease, Washington Post (June 11), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2017/06/11/new-york-police-officer-at-east-harlem-station-contracts-legionnaires-disease/?tid=hybrid_collaborative_1_na&utm_term=.12061ad147cf.
Cause and Common Sources, CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/legionella/about/causes-transmission.html (last updated June 1, 2017).
Prevention, CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/legionella/about/prevention.html (last updated June 7, 2016).
Officials Identify Likely Culprit in Deadly Legionnaires Outbreak, CBS News (June 20, 2017), http://www.cbsnews.com/news/deadly-legionnaires-outbreak-new-york-source-identified/.
Water System Maintenance, CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/legionella/water-system-maintenance.html (last updated July 12, 2016).