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Legionnaires’ Disease Could Breed En Masse During Pandemic

Bob Bowcock
via Chino Basin Watermaster
Chino Basin Watermaster
Bob Bowcock

A health advocacy group said a type of water-borne disease may be spreading at Illinois’ unoccupied workplaces.

Legionnaires’ Disease, which took 43 lives in Illinois last year, could make a comeback amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alliance to Prevent Legionnaires’ Disease spokesperson Bob Bowcock explained neglected water systems in shuttered workplaces provide a perfect breeding ground for the Legionella bacteria, which carries the disease.

“If the building water system is not flushed out properly and properly disinfected and recommissioned, we could see a post-COVID-19 Legionella outbreak problem of major significance.”

The disease is contracted by breathing in water vapor, like the steam from a hot shower.

Bowcock said water systems in buildings left vacant by the state’s shutdown orders may be hosting disease-carrying bacteria.

“Somewhere in that building is, you know, a 55 gallon hot water heater that's been sitting pretty stagnant for 90 days,” Bowcock said. “It's got some nasty stuff going on inside.”

“So if you're heating through that sludge in a stagnant building, and because the water hasn't been used, all that sludge is is solidifying. It's basically becoming a block of sludge rather than a dynamic fluidized bed of sludge, and now you're going to heat through that,” he explained further.

“As you heat through that, it's not going to get as hot, it's going to actually heat the water to optimal temperatures for Legionella growth, and you're going to infect yourself.”

Bowcock said communities and businesses should be flushing out their drinking water systems to help prevent the bacteria from breeding en masse.

“Until people start utilizing their plumbing systems, they're going to be breeding grounds for bacteriological regrowth and biofilm formation,” Bowcock said. “We're [also] going to see other microbiological outbreaks associated with stagnant water and distribution systems.”

To help businesses and communities avoid the problem, Bowcock said the APLD and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have written guidance on how to properly disinfect water systems.

Mike Smith is a graduate Public Affairs Reporting intern for the spring 2020 legislative session.
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