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Victims Pay for Lack of Quality Control in NYC Cooling Towers


On August 10, 2015, USA Today reported that the death toll from the recent outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in New York City had reached 12. Mayor Bill de Blasio reported that 113 people in total had been affected, with 76 people hospitalized for the disease.

The NY state health department enacted emergency regulations to deal with the outbreak on August 17, requiring building owners to test their cooling towers. The tests revealed that the Opera House Hotel cooling tower was the source of the potentially deadly bacteria, and City Health Commissioner Mary Basset announced the outbreak was over on August 21, 2015.

In a recent article in Robson Forensic, mechanical engineers looked into the issue, and noted that mechanical building systems played a role in the outbreak, with 20 cooling towers in the area testing positive for Legionella bacteria.

What is Legionnaire’s Disease?

According to the National Institutes of Health, “Legionnaire’s disease is a type of pneumonia caused by bacteria.” People become infected by inhaling the mist from contaminated water, usually from air-conditioning units in large buildings, or from hot tubs and showers. The disease does not spread from person to person.

Though most people who are infected will either recover or never get sick in the first place, those who are vulnerable may become sick and even have to be hospitalized for the disease. Seniors, those with weak immune systems, and those who already have chronic lung disease can even die from the infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the condition is fatal for between five and 30 percent of those who develop it.

City Enacts New Laws to Improve Conditions of Cooling Towers

The New York City outbreak started in July in the south Bronx area. Within just a month, 12 people had died from the disease, with over 100 confirmed cases. Though a total of 20 buildings tested positive for the bacteria, only 14 were in the affected area and believed to be connected to the outbreak.

Cooling towers are commonly vulnerable to the bacteria, and often test positive for it. Because of the seriousness of this outbreak, the city issued new requirements for buildings with these types of cooling systems. Owners are now required to perform certain risk management steps when designing, constructing, operating, and repairing these systems, to help reduce the chances of a future outbreak.

According to Newsweek, the new law requires building owners to register existing cooling towers, and to undergo quarterly inspections of all towers. They will also have to “develop and implement a maintenance plan in line with the current engineering standards to prevent bacterial contamination.”

Those who do not comply with the new law will have to pay penalties of up to $2,000 for the first violation. Fines for failing to inspect and clean any cooling tower could result in a fine of up to $25,000.

Victims Are the Ones Who Paid for the Lack of Quality Control

Following this outbreak, buildings that tested positive for the bacteria were disinfected immediately. Individuals who were affected by the disease, however—particularly families who lost loved ones—will suffer from the impact for a long time to come.


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  1. Robert Hogan says:
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    It is unfortunate that all facilities do not use available and inexpensive systems to protect against this type of infection. As illustrated in the attached link, it’s time to act to protect employees and visitors in public buildings. The new legislation in New York is a good start. http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20150820006287/en#.VftUz99VhBd

  2. Loraine Huchler PE CMC says:
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    Unfortunately, the new laws enacted by NYC and New York State are poorly constructed. The right response would have been to require all commercial building owners to implement the new ASHRAE standard 20105-188. The second outbreak in NYC two weeks ago found legionella bacteria in numerous buildings in the distribution system for potable (drinking) water, not just cooling towers. The regulations recommended but did not require implementation of the entire ASHRAE standard – it left out the risk assessment of the building and cooling tower water systems.