Iconic environmental advocate visits Albany; Wants better strategies for controlling Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks
New York leads the nation in cases of Legionnaires’ disease, a life threatening waterborne illness caused by legionella bacteria in water supplies.
During an event in Albany last week, the Alliance to Prevent Legionnaires’ Disease and the Allergy & Asthma Network joined iconic environmental advocate Erin Brockovich, who warned of a public water “crisis” if state and New York City health regulators don’t re-think their strategies for dealing with the issue.
Legionnaires’ disease is caused by inhaling contaminated water droplets, and leads to a severe pneumonia. Ten percent of those infected will die from the disease. Pneumonic symptoms can be especially dangerous for the elderly, those with asthma, and others with weakened immune systems.
The Alliance to Prevent Legionnaires’ presented its assessment on the “misguided” state regulations put in place after a large outbreak of the disease in the summer of 2015, mostly concentrated in the south Bronx, according to a press release.
A spokesperson for the Rouse family shared the story of James Rouse, a Bronx schoolteacher who died from Legionnaires’ disease in April 2015. According to Rouse’s sister, Patricia Rouse, the New York City Health Department waited four months to properly test the school where Rouse worked.
“Despite cover up efforts, legionella was found in the water system,” she said. “Officials say it wasn’t enough to shut down the entire school. The school stayed open and the children were put at risk.”
In response to the 2015 outbreak, New York City officials put new regulations in place in August 2015 to clean out a water cooling tower suspected of spreading the bacteria. A month later, another outbreak began in the East Bronx, suggesting that the source of legionella goes further back in the water treatment process.
According to the Alliance’s report, “the EPA believes that if Giardia and viruses are inactivated… legionella will also be controlled.” But that policy, they say, is “a serious weakness of the system.” Legionella bacteria grows easily in water distribution systems, typically in the biofilm on the walls of aging pipes that can be found in water systems throughout the state.
Legionella was discovered after an outbreak in 1976 among the attendees of an American Legion convention in Philadelphia. It was later discovered that the bacteria was spread through an air-conditioning system in the hotel where the men and their families were staying.
Most reported cases of legionnaires’ disease are sporadic, not part of an outbreak, and go mostly unnoticed. “In these cases, the Health Department fills out a questionnaire, but does not undertake any environmental sampling as part of its investigation,” according to the report. Advocates agree that legionnaires’ is a problem of water sources and adding insufficient levels of chlorine to the system to kill the bacteria.
More than 1,000 cases of Legionnaires’ disease have been reported across New York state since the current regulations took effect. According to the alliance, in 2016 alone, 718 state residents contracted Legionnaires’ disease, making up 14 percent of the total number of Legionnaires’ disease cases in the U.S.
If current trends continue unabated, medically supported expert data indicates that approximately an additional 700 New Yorkers will become infected in 2017, with 10 percent of expected to die from the disease.
“There is a serious public water crisis brewing in New York,” said Brockovich, an environmental and water safety advocate. “New Yorkers are needlessly dying from their public water systems, and the stark truth is that more people will get seriously ill and die if the state’s current regulations… are not changed to address the real issues that exist with the water supply.”