Avoid Legionella outbreaks by checking water outlets before reopening

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It is difficult not to think about anything besides the new coronavirus these days, but this new virus is not the only thing we need to worry about. As a matter of fact, the coronavirus is causing us to worry even more about Legionella bacteria and the potentially deadly pneumonia it can cause—Legionnaires’ disease.

Certainly, cases of coronavirus infections are now growing rapidly again in the UK and in other European countries. Although the new coronavirus and Legionella bacteria have different ways of transmission, the mortality rates for Legionnaires’ disease contamination are actually much higher at ten per cent to twenty-five per cent depending on if contaminated in a community or hospital. Interestingly, one person has recently been reported to have been infected with both Legionella and the new coronavirus.

A temporary shutdown or even a reduced operation of a facility or building (for instance, a childcare facility, or a university or school) and reductions in normal water usage can generate hazards for returning guests and occupants. Make sure you check for risks before reopening after a prolonged period of inactivity. Hazards and risks may include Legionella (which causes Legionnaires’ disease), mould, lead and copper contamination.

Organisations, businesses and other services looking to reopen after a prolonged period of time need to ensure they carry out essential safety checks to avoid the risk of the deadly Legionnaires’ disease in their water supply. With many buildings, facilities and premises closed for several weeks or even months, the chances of bacteria forming in the water supplies is more likely.

Legionella bacteria and Legionnaires’ disease

Stagnant water in a plumbing system may increase the risk for growth and spread of Legionella bacteria and other biofilm-associated pathogens. When water is standing still and therefore stagnant, hot water temperatures may actually decrease to the Legionella growth range. Stagnant water can also lead to undetectable levels of disinfectant like chlorine. Make sure your water supply is safe to use after a shutdown to minimise the risk of Legionella and other water-associated diseases.

Individuals at increased risk of developing Legionnaires’ disease, like those with weakened immune systems, need to consult with a medical professional about their participation in cooling tower cleaning, flushing or any other activities that could produce aerosols. Using an air-purifying respirator equipped with an N95 filter, or even an N95 filtering face mask, just like the ones we use to prevent coronavirus infections, may be fitting in enclosed spaces where aerosol presence is likely.

Legionella risks and hazards during the pandemic

Employers and people managing the premises, like landlords, have a duty to protect occupants by identifying and managing risks associated with Legionella.

If your building has been closed or has reduced occupancy or usage during the pandemic, water stagnation may occur due to lack of use, thus increasing the risks of an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. You should also ensure that the building manager in charge of Legionella management has gone through a thorough Legionella awareness training program.

You need to review your risk assessment and control the Legionella risks when you:

  • reinstate a water supply or start using it once again
  • restart certain types of A/C (air conditioning) units

In case the water system is used regularly, keep the appropriate measures in place in order to prevent Legionella growth.

Comparing Legionella and the new coronavirus

Why does the new coronavirus cause us to worry more about Legionella? The coronavirus pandemic shut down has affected the quality of water in our water systems where Legionella can grow and spread.

Legionella and COVID-19 both cause very serious lung infections and the individuals affected are frequently both the elderly and infirmed. These people are the occupants of nursing homes, healthcare facilities, senior retirement communities and entertainment venues. Such facilities have been operating at low or no occupancy. This very low-use situation has caused stagnation and increased the amount of time water is in the pipes. This causes water quality to degrade and bacteria to thrive.

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