What’s something your house, a nuclear power plant and Disneyland all probably have in common? A cooling system. Homes, Disneyland and nuclear power plants all have systems in place to lower temperatures, albeit to varying degrees of sophistication. They serve an important purpose – particularly in warmer climates – but what many people don’t realize is they can also become contaminated by bacteria, putting people’s health and even lives at risk.

A poignant example made headlines this month when an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease infected Disneyland visitors in Anaheim, California. The Happiest Place on Earth had to shut down two cooling towers after 12 people contracted the illness, nine of whom had visited the park in September, according to the Los Angeles Times. The other cases were people who lived or traveled in Anaheim. In total, 10 people were hospitalized and one person who had not visited Disneyland died.

Legionnaires’ disease, a serious type of pneumonia, is typically contracted by breathing in small droplets of water in the air that contain the bacteria Legionella, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains. Legionella occurs naturally in fresh water sources but becomes an issue in man-made water systems if left unchecked.

Infections can cause coughing, shortness of breath, fever and muscle aches any time from two days to two weeks after exposure to the bacteria. Though it is typically treatable with antibiotics, about one out of every 10 people who contract it will die from the infection. Common sources of infection include showers, cooling towers, decorative fountains and hot tubs.

For example, Beasley Allen handled a case stemming from a hotel hot tub contaminated with Legionella. A number of the individuals who stayed at the hotel, including several who were part of a girls’ softball team, became ill and tested positive for Legionnaires’ disease.

At the time the suit was filed in 2014, Beasley Allen attorney Ben Locklar, who handled the case, said, “Guests expect a reasonable amount of care to be taken in regards to health and safety. It is clear that the hotel’s water system and cooling system have not been properly maintained and that the infected were unknowingly exposed to bacteria-laden water, mist and air at the hotel.” The case settled earlier this year for an undisclosed amount.

According to CDC officials, Legionnaires’ disease has been steadily increasing since 2000. In 2014, 5,000 cases were reported, versus 6,000 in 2015. New York passed new regulations to try to reduce the number of legionnaires’ infections after a 2016 outbreak in the Bronx killed 16 and sickened 138 more, but experts say the new rules have had little effect.

The cause for the disease’s rise is still not understood, but possible reasons include better surveillance and testing mechanisms, an increase in the number of elderly citizens, aging plumbing systems, and temperature increases. While we wait to better understand the causes of Legionnaires’ rise, the increase clearly highlights the need to keep water systems well maintained. Not doing so can cost someone’s life.

Los Angeles Times
Beasley Allen
Infectious Disease Today
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