In the United States, there are thousands industrial facilities that use large quantities of water to cool their production plants, which recycle more than 98% of wasted water. Despite this fact, such cooling towers have led to the recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in New York City, which has left about 10 dead, and 100 confirmed sick.
However, industrial facilities are not the only places that use cooling towers. Recently, Yonkers officials found Legionella bacteria — the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease — in the cooling tower of Riverside High School, meaning that the bacteria was also in the school’s air conditioning system.
The tower has since been cleaned, and in addition to taking care of the school’s cooling tower, Spano also ordered each of the city-owned towers be inspected.
“The facility was closed immediately out of an abundance of caution to allow for the proper disinfecting and cleaning process to occur,” said Mayor Mike Spano in a statement. “Riverside was reopened today and the cooling tower does not pose any health risk to students, administrators, staff or other members of the public.”
The Legionella bacteria reproduces in puddles of water, which form in the cooling towers. When the water becomes mist or vapor, the bacteria then becomes airborne. This is how Legionnaires’ disease is contracted. It is not, however, contagious (i.e., it cannot be spread from one person to another).
“Most healthy people do not become infected with Legionella bacteria after exposure,” the New York State Department of Health wrote online. “People at higher risk of getting sick are those 50 years of age or older, current or former smokers, those with a chronic lung disease (like COPD or emphysema), those with a weak immune system from diseases like cancer, diabetes, or kidney failure, and people who take drugs that suppress (weaken) the immune system (like after a transplant operation or chemotherapy).”
The NYS Health Department also explained that anyone who has visited, worked, or stayed in a building that’s been tested positive for Legionella is not likely to be infected. The bacteria is so common that most people have already been exposed to it in the past, and haven’t become ill.
Nevertheless, legislators are taking proactive steps in light of the breakout.
New York city Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a new law that aims to better regulate cooling towers by requiring landlords to register, inspect, and regularly clean cooling towers. It also requires building owners to get an annual certification. Those who don’t comply would face fines up to $25,000.