This headline from CNN caught my eye, Chicago hotel shuts fountain, spa after fatal Legionnaires’ outbreak. This outbreak happened at a well established hotel… so what happened? Legionella Bacterium is present in most water sources, including lakes and rivers, although largely in harmlessly low numbers. However, given the right environment, Legionella can become a serious risk to health and in some cases even prove fatal. In the UK business owners failing to manage Legionella levels safely and efficiently can incur heavy fines and imprisonment. By law organisations have a duty to maintain and monitor their water systems and must be compliant with ACoP guidelines and HSE regulations.
Legionnaire’s disease gets its name from outbreak in Philadelphia in 1976 which occurred largely among people attending a American Legion convention at a hotel but the unknown strain of bacteria that caused the infection wasn’t discovered until a few months later. Infection normally occurs after inhaling fine airborne particles containing Legionella bacteria. Such particles could originate from any infected water source.
Large buildings, such as hotels, hospitals, museums and office blocks, are more vulnerable to legionella contamination because they have sprawling water supply systems in which the bacteria can quickly spread. Spa pools, premises with a cooling tower or evaporative condenser, hot and cold water systems are all at risk. The HSE outlines these water systems which should be risk assessed:
- water is stored or re-circulated as part of your system
- there are sources of nutrients such as rust, sludge, scale and organic matters
- the conditions are likely to encourage bacteria to multiply
- it is possible for water droplets to be produced and, if so, whether they can be dispersed over a wide area, e.g. showers and aerosols from cooling towers
- it is likely that any of your employees, residents, visitors etc are more susceptible to infection due to age, illness, a weakened immune system etc and whether they could be exposed to any contaminated water droplets
You can reduce the risk of Legionella by avoiding water temperatures and conditions that favour the growth of legionella and other micro-organisms and by ensuring water cannot stagnate anywhere in the system by keeping pipe lengths as short as possible or removing redundant pipework. Water systems should be kept clean and water can be treated to either kill legionella (and other microorganisms) or limit their ability to grow. By keeping water moving and either cooled below 20ºC or heated above 60ºC this will help reduce the risk.
The bacteria can cause a serious lung infection, leading to a persistent cough, chest pains and breathing difficulties. It can be treated by antibiotics and most victims recover, but complications can lead to the failure of organs such as the lungs or kidneys. Between 5% and 30% of people who get the disease die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. In the UK in 2010 there were 38 deaths from Legionnaires’ disease in England and Wales. Symptoms of Legionnaire’s disease are hard to detect as they are similar to the flu but it can be diagnosed via a blood or urine test. Typical symptoms might include high temperature, coughs, muscle pain, headache, pneumonia, diarrhoea and signs of mental confusion.
There is a legal requirement for all employers to report cases of Legionnaires’ disease that may be acquired at their premises to the Health and Safety Executive.