Almost 100 New Yorkers caught Legionnaire’s disease from their buildings’ air conditioning

Legionella in the lab.
Legionella in the lab.
Image: Reuters/Pascal Rossignol
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Eighty-six New Yorkers have been diagnosed this summer with Legionnaire’s disease, a severe form of pneumonia, and seven have died, making it the city’s worst outbreak of the illness in recent history.

People contract Legionnaire’s by inhaling water droplets that contain Legionella bacteria, which grows in warm water (the name comes from an outbreak at an American Legion convention in the 1970s). The New York health department says most cases can be traced to “whirlpool spas, hot tubs, humidifiers, hot water tanks, cooling towers, and evaporative condensers of large air-conditioning systems.”

Officials recently identified five cooling towers in the South Bronx, one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, that have been harboring Legionella bacteria. Multiple large buildings, including a Verizon office building and a medical center, have air-conditioning systems with tainted cooling towers.

The towers have been disinfected, and others tested nearby were found to be free of the bacteria. Now the city is facing criticism for not adequately monitoring the water quality in its cooling towers before so many people got sick.

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio promised to require inspections and cleanings of all the city’s air conditioning cooling towers, which are currently not even listed in a single database, to prevent future outbreaks.

Legionnaire’s isn’t exactly rare, but the spate of cases diagnosed between July 10 and August 4 was frighteningly high. The city had a total of 225 recorded cases in all of 2014.