In the wake of the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak from this summer, Tompkins County Health Department officials in Central New York are working to register, inspect, and test each and every one of the area’s cooling towers for Legionella, the bacteria that causes the disease.
On August 17, the New York State Department of Health passed emergency regulations with the aim to stop the spread of Legionnaires’ disease. Now, cooling towers in Tompkins County, and across the entire state, are subject to the new regulations, which go into effect on September 16.
When most people think of cooling towers, they think of those massive structures commonly associated with nuclear power plants. The fact of the matter is that cooling towers vary in size from small roof-top units to those aforementioned, 660-feet-tall and 330-feet-in-diameter hyperboloid structures, or rectangular structures that can be over 130 feet tall and 260 feet long. It’s these smaller cooling towers that initially caused the problem.
New York City officials have been able to pinpoint the source of the outbreak to a contaminated rooftop air-conditioning unit at the historic Opera House Hotel, according to New York City health commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett. Extensive sampling, and testing found that the strain there matched that of the one found in 25 patients. The outbreak started there sickened 100 people, and left a dozen dead.
“The outbreak is over,” said Bassett, noting that the maximum incubation period of Legionnaires’ has passed since the time of the last report of someone new coming down with symptoms.
People contract the disease when they breathe vapors or mist that contain Legionella, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This means that the bacteria does not spread from person to person, like a cold might. And even if a person is exposed to the disease, they may not get sick. In fact, most don’t. Smokers, the elderly, and those who have weakened immune systems are more susceptible, but most people aren’t affected by it.
However, though the outbreak may have ended, now is the time to ensure that it doesn’t happen again, taking the necessary preventative steps, as the new regulations seek to do.