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  • Brett Walton, Circle of Blue

Are Your Water Systems Free Of Legionella Bacteria?

Deadly Legionella Bacteria Are Common in U.S. Building Plumbing

Bacteria responsible for the deadliest waterborne disease in the United States are frequent residents of the cooling towers that are a part of heating and air conditioning systems in apartments, hospitals, nursing homes, hotels, and other large buildings, according to a study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Legionnaires’ disease, the pneumonia-like illness spread by Legionella bacteria, sickens thousands annually in the United States and kills hundreds. Cooling towers, because they can disperse contaminated droplets over many miles, are implicated in numerous outbreaks of the disease.

It’s a scenario that should concern building managers throughout the country, the study authors argue.

“Finding the bacteria in all regions that we studied makes us aware that Legionella outbreaks are a possibility everywhere,” Brian Raphael, a CDC microbiologist and study co-author, told Circle of Blue.

The bacteria, which grow in warm waters in plumbing systems, target the lungs. Infection occurs when people inhale bacteria, having become airborne in the spray from a cooling tower, fountain, showerhead, or faucet. The ill and the elderly are most at risk — and that risk appears to be growing. Reported cases of Legionnaires’ disease have risen sharply, showing a four-fold increase in the United States since the year 2000, according to the CDC.

The study’s publication comes as the National Academy of Sciences begins an investigation next month of how to reduce the risk of Legionnaires’ disease and as a series of infections at a state-run veterans home in Illinois has brought the disease to the attention of the governor and one of the state’s U.S. senators.

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