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IAQ: Is Legionella Pneumophila Lurking in your Water Systems?

An closer look at legionella, a bacteria that can be found in a facilities water systems.

Many of us haven’t quite recovered from the maintenance and energy costs associated with heating our buildings this past winter. Now we must prepare our buildings for the warm summer months, making sure our HVAC systems are fully operational. A new set of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) issues present themselves in the summer months. As the heat index ramps up, so do microorganisms, some of which can be potentially deadly for our elderly and immunocompromised populations. Exposure to one of these microbes, Legionella pneumophila, can cause the deadly Legionnaire’s Disease (or LD), which causes serious cases of a pneumonia-like illness or the less severe Pontiac Fever. The first known outbreak of Legionnaires Disease occurred in 1976 in a Philadelphia Hotel where the Pennsylvania American Legion was hosting their state convention. Roughly 200 Legionnaires and visitors contracted the pneumonia and at least 29 people died at this event. The previously unknown bacteria was traced back to the hotel’s cooling towers.

Legionella pneumophila Health Impacts

Although people with healthy immune systems can fight off the infection, Legionella pneumophila is usually too strong for the elderly and people whose immune systems are weakened. Unlike the common cold, you cannot be infected by Legionella from another person, so sneezing and coughing will not cause you to fall ill. And if you are a healthy individual, you most likely will not even become ill from exposure. The individuals at greatest risk for Legionella infection include:

  • Older individuals (50 years or more)
  • Smokers
  • Individuals with diminished immune systems (caused by diabetes, HIV, AIDS, organ transplant or failure, and a number of other diseases or medications )
  • Individuals with lung complications (such as COPD or Emphysema)

Our immune systems are important for fighting off disease and infection, but when they aren’t functioning properly, microorganisms can take advantage. Weakened lung function and damaged lung tissue provides Legionella pneumophila easy access into our bodies, allowing the infection to become much more aggressive. There are many symptoms associated with Legionella infection including:

  • Coughing
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Muscle aches
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

These symptoms are very common of many other illnesses, making it difficult to determine whether the infection was caused by Legionella pneumophila. When the patient develops pneumonia, the outlook is usually grim.

Legionella Pneumophila in Our Facilities

Legionnaires Disease is seasonal in nature, peaking from June through November; however, hospitals and nursing homes must battle the microorganism year round. Although hospitals have trained staff and many medical resources, pneumonia can be persistent and difficult to fight. Prevention is one of the main goals of hospitals and elderly care facilities in order to protect their patients from exposure. This usually entails monitoring the main source of Legionella pneumophila contamination: the water supply. Legionella pneumophila lives in and thrives in water systems, and is often released in mist, aerosols and vapor. The bacteria can be found in fountains, plumbing systems, cooling towers and hot tubs; anywhere water is found in or around a building. Legionella pneumophila prefers higher water temperatures, an environment that allows the bacteria to flourish and become a problem in building water systems, which usually operate at high temperatures. Since high temperatures are ineffective at damaging Legionella, chemical treatments are used to prevent growth and keep water clean for various uses around the facility. Operations staff must closely monitor their water quality to determine if their supply has become contaminated. Facilities with potential sources and potential higher risk patients should consider testing to determine if Legionella pneumophila is present.

The quality of indoor environments and water supplies are very important. People spend much of their day inside a building, breathing in its air and using its water. Element Environmental Solutions (E2S) understands that our indoor environments are just as important as the one outside our windows and wants to ensure that all employees can work in a safe environment. We can provide system and building evaluations including water sampling to determine the presence of Legionella pneumophila bacteria, develop facility treatment plans, training to allow facilities to recognize areas of contamination, and educating facility employees in safety and awareness. Contact Us if you’re concerned that this bacteria may be an issue in your facility.

This is our second post in our Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) series where we’ll take a closer look at hazardous materials commonly found in older buildings.We’ll discuss the history, health impacts and how to minimize risks associated with each of these materials. If you missed our first post on asbestos click here to learn more about asbestos materials found in our indoor environments. 

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