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Outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease in the South Bronx Claims 10 Lives


As of August 9th, 2015, an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the South Bronx infected at least 100 people and claimed 10 lives, mostly among the elderly. The cause of the outbreak was traced to water-cooling towers infected with Legionnaires’ disease bacteria, or LSB. Several cooling towers tested positive for the disease, including ones at the Opera House Hotel, the Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center, a local high school, a post office, the Bronx County Hall of Justice and two apartment buildings.

Photo Credit: James Keivom/New York Daily News

Bronx borough president Ruden Diaz, Jr. praised the city’s quick response to the crisis, but also asked a telling question: “Why, instead of doing a good job responding, don’t we do a good job proactively inspecting?” The New York Mayor’s office issued a statement indicating serious consideration is being given to a new prevention plan.

That’s good news for New York City, but in most areas of the country, you’re on your own when it comes to preventing LBD infection. The bacteria exists in low levels in nature, usually at levels too low to pose a risk to public health. Under the right conditions, however, LBD can reproduce rapidly. Water-cooling towers, commercial and residential water heaters, and warm pools of stagnant water offer perfect breeding conditions.

Causes and Symptoms

A form of atypical bacteria, LBD infects people who breathe in contaminated water mist, propelled into the air from cooling towers, evaporative condensers, evaporative coolers, misters, showers, whirlpool baths and even faucets. Once inhaled, the disease incubates for two to ten days.

The disease initially resembles a mild flu, with people reporting such symptoms as:

  • Aching joints or muscles
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of energy
  • Low-grade fever.

Symptoms quick become more severe as the bacteria causes pneumonia, with such symptoms as:

  • 102° to 105° Fahrenheit fevers
  • Chest pains
  • Chills
  • Initially dry coughs developing into phlegm-producing cough
  • Shortness of breath / difficulty breathing.

Person-to-person transmission of Legionnaires’ disease, fortunately, has never been documented.

Infection Rates

During a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak, less than five percent of people exposed to contaminated water develop the disease. Groups at higher risk include the elderly, smokers, people with suppressed immune systems, organ transplant recipients, individuals who consume large amounts of alcohol, and those with underlying medical disorders. In all, 10,000 to 18,000 people are infected with the bacteria every year in the United States.

Protecting Yourself from Legionnaires’ disease

In public, remain aware of the potential danger of LBD, particularly in spas, saunas, and other environments where water vapor is a factor. No vaccine offers protection against Legionnaires’ disease, and while antibiotics are effective in the disease’s early stages, prevention is always better than cure.

At home, maintaining air conditioners and water heaters reduces your risk of legionnaire’s disease. Ultraviolet disinfectant systems effectively kills LBD.

Not all UV disinfectant systems are equal, of course. Protect yourself and your family by installing an NSF Certified Class A or B system like the Pelican Water UV disinfectant system, which for only $600 can kill 99.9 percent of disease-causing bacteria in city water, including LBD E.coli, Giardia, and Cryptosporidium, the most common causes of water-borne illness.

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