Even with 12 reported deaths, city officials are saying the worst Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in NYC history is beginning to wane. City and state officials now must attempt to prevent future outbreaks, including developing a registry of cooling towers and keeping them regulated, inspected and clean.
Legionnaires’ disease is not contagious. It is contracted through bacteria in water droplets in the air. The bacteria, called Legionella, can be found in places such as hot tubs, public fountains and in indoor plumbing.
During this outbreak — no new cases have been diagnosed since Aug. 3 — the bacteria spread through cooling towers, which work with air-conditioning systems to absorb excess heat into pools of cooling water. That process, like pouring cold water on a hot pot, generates a mist sent into the outside air. People are exposed when they breathe air with contaminated water droplets.
It’s important that cooling towers are disinfected and cleaned regularly. But it’s much more difficult to fight a disease outbreak when no one knows where to look. To date, there’s no registry of where these towers are located. So, when an outbreak appears, it’s difficult to determine whether a cooling tower is at fault, which tower is responsible or which buildings have towers.
The city sees hundreds of Legionnaires’ cases a year. It’s not new. But this is the most severe outbreak ever in NYC — killing 12 and sickening more than 100. The combination of a densely populated area in the South Bronx, with residents who, in many cases, had other health concerns, contributed to the magnitude of the situation. Now, it must be the impetus for real change.
And yet, it’s also the breeding ground for yet another tussle between Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has claimed state action is needed because the city wasn’t doing enough. Monday, the two held simultaneous news conferences and provided conflicting information on how many towers were found with the bacteria. The ongoing drama is taking attention away from the disease itself — and efforts to move forward.
De Blasio proposed legislation Monday to require registration and inspection of cooling towers citywide. That’s necessary to contain and find future outbreaks. Also critical is the city’s broader attention to health in impoverished neighborhoods, as Legionnaires’ is far less severe in more healthy individuals. And building owners must be more attentive to inspecting and disinfecting their cooling towers.
But this isn’t just a city concern. A plant worker in Rockland County was diagnosed, too. Albany must issue statewide regulations on preventing Legionnaires’ and on keeping cooling towers clean and inspected. Developing a state database of the cooling towers is key.
Let’s stop the finger-pointing and move on to developing standards to keep New Yorkers healthy.