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New Legionnaires’ Disease Outbreak Claims First Victim

Washington Heights, Manhattan

Legionnaires' Death

Usual suspects: water cooling towers can breed deadly Legionella bacteria.

July 20, 2018

Co-op and condo boards regularly bemoan the ever-growing burden of city regulations. One of the heaviest is the new rules on maintaining water-cooling towers, the rooftop tanks that power central air-conditioning systems. The city rules, among the most stringent in the nation, are the result of a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the Bronx in 2015. Many boards are now girding for the wave of violations being issued by a beefed-up corps of city inspectors – and planning appeals to those violations

Despite board complaints, the rationale behind the regulations became apparent again this week when one person died and 18 were sickened in Upper Manhattan from a fresh outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, the New York Times reports. The city declined to release the name of the person who died, but said he or she was over 50 years old and had risk factors for Legionnaires’ disease. Common risk factors include heavy cigarette smoking, chronic lung disease, and a weakened immune system. The affected neighborhoods include parts of Washington Heights and Sugar Hill. 

The disease is a serious type of pneumonia commonly caused by breathing in water vapor that contains Legionella bacteria. The disease is more common in the summer, because the bacteria thrive in warm water, which can be found in cooling towers, hot water tanks, and condensers in large air-conditioning units.

City officials say the latest cluster of cases, including the death, were found between 145th and 165th Streets in Manhattan. Nine people have been released from hospitals, according to Demetre Daskalakis, the deputy commissioner of disease control for the city. Seven are still in the hospital; one was treated as an outpatient. 

The city has tested 20 cooling towers but has not yet identified the source of the bacteria, Dr. Daskalakis said, because cell cultures taken from both people and cooling towers take time to grow. He added that the city had treated the water in the cooling towers where there was evidence of bacteria present. Residents of Upper Manhattan who experience flu-like symptoms are urged to see a doctor immediately.

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