In the new normal, most workplaces focus on hygiene, hybrid workplaces, and ventilation. All these are understandable as they help reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection.
This health issue, however, isn’t the only one that matters today. The CDC and other health experts are encouraging business owners and building managers to contact an air-conditioning company ASAP, especially if they’re using comprehensive water systems like cooling towers. These places are prone to Legionnaires’ disease.
What Is Legionnaires’ Disease?
Legionnaires’ disease is a potentially life-threatening condition caused by a bacterium known as Legionella. This is often found in natural bodies of water like streams and lakes.
However, they can also grow in controlled water systems, such as heaters and cooling towers, when the environment is ideal.
Factors that may influence the growth of the bacteria are water main breaks, changes in the quality of municipal water, fluctuations in pH levels, water pressure changes, sedimentation, and scaling.
Probably the most common reason is standing water. When the water is stagnant, the hot temperature eventually drops to between 25 and 42 degrees Celsius, which makes it a perfect breeding ground for the bacterium.
According to the CDC, there’s no standard when it comes to how long the water hasn’t been moving. It can be weeks or months—as long as the COVID-19 lockdowns last year. This explains why health experts are calling people, especially those returning to work or moving back to their apartments, to be more vigilant.
How the Disease Can Spread
Considering the plumbing system of most buildings, the pathogen can find its way into air-conditioning units. When ACs are centralized, it makes it even easier for the bacteria to cover more spaces while the units release droplets.
People who inhale these droplets may then develop a lung infection called atypical pneumonia. This means that the type of microorganism causing the problem isn’t the most common ones. It, therefore, makes Legionnaires’ disease harder to treat.
The fatality rate for this disease is 10 percent, but it can be deadlier for people with weakened or immunocompromised bodies, older adults and seniors, and children, especially those who are below a year old.
These individuals are prone to developing severe complications. Medscape shared that Legionnaires’ disease may cause empyema, wherein pus accumulates in the chest wall and the lungs. It may also result in pulmonary cavitation, or the development of lung cavities, and bullous emphysema, which happens when large air- or water-filled sacs grow in the lungs.
If the immune system cannot fight the infection despite the medications, the patient then becomes susceptible to systemic shock. This one can lead to multiorgan failure.
How Common Is Legionnaires’ Disease?
In 2018, the CDC reported about 10,000 cases of this infection in the United States. But the agency believed these numbers may be underreported. Because the condition can mimic other illnesses, some may have been misdiagnosed.
There could also be underdiagnosis. Often, cases remain undetected unless healthcare facilities perform special tests on those diagnosed with pneumonia (or showing symptoms of the disease). Overall, the actual figures could be almost three times higher than what the official records say.
Nevertheless, increased vigilance is necessary to contain a possible massive outbreak. Recently, some states reported higher-than-normal cases of Legionnaires’ disease. One of these is Michigan.
From July 1 to 14, the region recorded around 107 cases in at least 25 counties. It represented an increase of over 550 percent from referrals last year and at least 150 percent in 2019.
Meanwhile, Minnesota is investigating at least two cases of Legionnaires’ disease linked to a hotel. Based on the initial reports, these two people who belonged to different groups used the hot tubs and pool of the resort in June and began showing symptoms around the same month until early July.
The CDC suggests regular monitoring or surveillance, especially on systems prone to Legionella, to help curb the spread of the pathogen. But the good news is that it’s preventable, and the other steps to take may be simple.
For example, buildings that use water heaters can work with their manufacturers to know if they need to drain the stagnant water after a long period of disuse. Setting the temperature at 140 degrees Fahrenheit and above may also help since it may kill the bacteria and thus decrease the risk.
As cooling towers may also be a potential home for the bacteria, building managers may need to implement proper start-up and shutdown processes based on the best industry practices.
Legionnaires’ disease is preventable, but there’s no better time to pay more attention to it than now.
Meta title: Why Should You Worry about Legionnaires’ Disease?
meta desc: Health experts are warning people back to work to pay attention to Legionnaires’ disease. Here’s why it’s concerning.