Risk managers now have to think about Legionnaire’s Disease related to Covid crisis


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Stagnant water in long-vacant buildings can spike risk of Legionella and requires careful risk mitigation

For professionals who work with Risk mitigation, 2020 is the year that keeps on giving. The newest covid-related risk: Legionella. Legionella is the bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s Disease, and it has caused the CDC itself to close some of its own office spaces in Atlanta.

Legionella bacteria can thrive in warm, stagnant water. Like the water found in toilet bowls in the bathrooms of office buildings that were vacated in March due to coronavirus stay-at-home orders.

CNN and the NY Times both reported last week that the CDC closed several of its office buildings in Atlanta due to the discovery of Legionella in building water systems.

Legionnaire’s Disease is a respiratory illness that can cause pneumonia and other serious symptoms, and it has a fatality rate as high as 10 percent. The New York Times initially reported on the risk of stagnant plumbing in vacated buildings in May of 2020. And Purdue University’s Center for Plumbing Safety has been providing research and recommendations on Covid-related plumbing hazards.

The root of the problem, according to Purdue researchers, is that plumbing systems in buildings, gyms, hotels, etc. are not designed to be left unused for long periods. Water in pipes, taps, and toilets can go stagnant. And when use resumes, the stagnant water can be dispersed into the air in tiny droplets by toilet flushes, by use of the tap, and so on.

Research-based recommendations exist for using disinfectants and flushing systems to mitigate the risk of stagnant water. But the Covid crisis has created problems in buildings and businesses where none existed before because the facilities were never closed for months at a time. And so this may be a risk not yet on the radars of many property or business managers.

And it’s a risk in a world already dominated by the risk of Covid itself. So public health officials and others tasked with safety may already be consumed by mitigating Covid risk and thereby unable to attend fully to this by-product of the Covid crisis.

The CDC’s guidelines on re-opening buildings provide recommendations on mitigating the risk. But considering that the CDC itself has had to close its own offices in Atlanta due to Legionella, a lot of questions remain unanswered. Part of that, according to Purdue professor Andrew Welton, is the unprecedented length of building closures and the absence of research on unprecedented events. What is clear is that the risk of Legionella is real and urgent as office buildings and other enterprises work to achieve normal operations in business locations.

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