Facilities managers need to understand the risks and possible impact that Legionnaires’ disease can have on occupants and visitors within their organizations.
Legionnaires' disease is a form of atypical pneumonia caused by exposure to Legionella bacteria. The bacteria can be found naturally in freshwater environments, like lakes and streams. However, it can become a health concern when it grows and spreads in building water systems.
When facilities greatly reduce occupancy or are not using areas of the facilities that contain faucets, toilets, showers, or drinking fountains on a regular basis, Legionella can begin to grow in the plumbing systems.
Occupants who are exposed to Legionella can develop symptoms that include cough, shortness of breath, high fever, muscle pains, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. It is potentially deadly.
What is Legionella and how does it spread?
Legionella can spread quickly. It grows and multiplies within the facility’s water system. Occupants can get Legionnaires’ disease (or Pontiac fever) when they breathe in small droplets of water from the air that contain the bacteria or aspirate when drinking water containing Legionella.
According to the CDC, people do not typically spread Legionnaires’ disease to other people. However, it may be possible under rare circumstances.
As you reopen your dormant facilities responsibly, make sure to step up your Legionnaires’ prevention efforts. In areas where water has remained static within the facility, a buildup of sediment and microorganisms may be breeding.
Know what’s growing in your facility, its pipes and water systems before allowing occupants to return. You will need to take precautions to clear the lines and flush the systems. This allows you to test the systems and ensure your sewage system is functional and clearing.
According to Reuters, commercial insurers are also making sure that building managers are working hard to avoid occupants becoming infected with the deadliest waterborne illness in the U.S. As facilities managers and operations re-open movie theaters, gyms, schools and offices that had been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, efforts must be made to avoid outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease.
While large commercial office buildings and manufacturing plants may continue to have facilities management staff onsite to keep water flowing throughout the crisis, smaller or unoccupied facilities are at a higher risk.
Detection and treatment of Legionella
After flushing all systems, if the presence of the bacteria remains within the water system, more powerful steps will have to be taken to treat it.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes the issues around Legionella and the dangers of it growing within potable water and offers these treatment categories:
- thermal or supplemental chemical disinfection: maintaining temperatures in hot and cold systems and using a secondary disinfection
- non-chemical disinfection: ultraviolet light and potential ozone generators
- point-of-use filtration
- inline filtration
It is preferable to apply treatments where they will do the most good, which is at the source or a common distribution location. If a source or common location is not available, then treatments should be applied at the point of use.
Remember, Legionnaire bacteria can be tenacious. Even though the source has been treated, the problem might not be solved.