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Legionnaires' Disease: Are You At Risk?

Tom Soter in Legal/Financial on August 13, 2015

The Bronx, New York City

The Outbreak's Aftermath
Aug. 13, 2015

What Should You Do? Despite the lack of inspection requirements, responsible co-op and condo buildings have already been following a "best practices/proactivist" approach. According to Greg Frazier, a managing partner at Clarity Water Technologies, twice-a-year cleanings are recommended; these cleanings can cost from $1,500 to $2,000 or more each, depending on the size of the cooling tower, how dirty it is, and how easily accessible it is. Buildings can also begin a monthly servicing program. The annual cost for this service for a small building (from 10 to 40 units) can run from $3,000 to $5,000 and more, while a larger building (from 800 to 1,000 units and up) can range from $20,000 to $30,000 and more.

"We treat the cooling towers with the necessary chemicals and [check] to make sure there is no possibility of Legionnaires' disease," says Brendan Keany, general manager of Penn South, a 2,820-unit Manhattan co-op. Before the system is turned on in the summer months, "we do all the necessity cleaning and prep work. We have a water treatment program in place."

Steve Greenbaum, the director of management at Mark Greenberg Real Estate, advises boards in buildings with cooling towers to conduct annual inspections. "Get a copy of the report from the contractor and then have him file it with the city," he says. "That should reassure your residents."

"It's all about being proactive not reactive," says Pete Stempkowski, a partner in Clarity Water Technologies. "You can't neglect it. You have to have a good treatment program in place."

What Is the Disease? The disease is essentially a severe form of pneumonia caused by Legionella bacteria that grows in warm water. You cannot catch it from person-to-person contact; you get it from inhaling water vapor containing the bacteria. People who are sick cannot make others sick. "Legionella needs other organisms to survive, so it will infiltrate itself into other larger organisms like an amoeba," says Frazier. In the cooling tower process, it becomes a mist "that comes out of a cooling tower and travels through the air. That mist is heavy with Legionella bacteria, and someone who is susceptible and breathes it in can become infected.  [The mist] leaves one cooling tower and can get sucked into another cooling tower. [The bacteria] could also be in air-borne dirt that gets sucked into the tower." Frazier says it is a widely reported fallacy that the bacteria spreads through air-conditioning ducts and pipes; it actually travels through the air and can be pulled into a building through an open door or window; people can be infected by inhaling the air outside the property.

Where Is It? Five cooling towers in the South Bronx tested positive for the bacteria, according to press reports.

How Big Is the Outbreak? This outbreak of Legionnaires' disease is the largest in the city's history. The total number of cases had risen to 12 dead and more than 100 reported sick. (In January 2015, 8 Co-op City residents were diagnosed with the disease, out of a total of 12 reported cases in The Bronx.)

What's Next? Expect legislation to mandate inspections. On August 6, health officials announced that New York City buildings with water-cooling towers would be required to assess and disinfect the units within two weeks of the order. Alessandro Spinelli, senior mechanical engineer at RAND Engineering & Architecture, predicts the order will eventually be codified as a local law. 

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