An outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the Bronx in 2015 killed 12 people and sickened over 100. The origin of the problem was traced to a boutique hotel in the South Bronx where improperly maintained cooling
towers, which cool water for central air-conditioning systems, fostered the growth of deadly legionella bacteria. The state then mandated that all building owners with towers send water samples to laboratories for culture testing every month. Additional regulations included mandatory semi-annual cleanings and disinfection. Violations are punishable by up to $25,000 in fines and up to one year in prison.
Despite this new burden on multiunit buildings throughout the city, legionella bacteria have not been eliminated. Last summer, seven people were sickened and one died after contracting the respiratory disease in Lenox Hill on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Then, in October, another outbreak in Flushing, Queens, sickened 14.
But there might now be some good news. Dr. Paul Lem, the chief executive officer and founder of Spartan Bioscience, a Canadian medical technology company, has created the Spartan Cube test, a portable device that tests water samples on site. This is very important, according to Lem, because a study funded by the Canadian government and conducted by Spartan Bioscience last year found that cooling-tower water infected with impermissible levels of legionella bacteria would often falsely test negative (that is, clean) in labs. That 65 percent “false negative” rate occurred because the bacteria would die en route from cooling tower to laboratory. With an on-site test, Lem expects that problem will be averted. Instead of shipping water samples to a laboratory and then waiting up to two weeks for results, boards can use Spartan Bioscience’s cube to get accurate legionella bacteria counts in 45 minutes.
The cube rents for $2,500 a year, with each individual test costing building owners an additional $150. The cube is now coming to market in the United States, and it could dramatically change legionella testing in New York City. But before it’s used here, the cube must be approved by city and state officials.