Legal Alerts

New Study: Changes Needed to Combat Deadly Legionnaires' Disease

Legionella bacteria is now the number one cause of reported waterborne diseases in the United States, according to a new report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Between 52,000 and 70,000 people contract Legionnaires’ disease each year, although thousands more cases may be misdiagnosed as pneumonia, which has similar symptoms.

Legionnaires’ disease, also known as Legionellosis, is caused by the Legionella bacteria, which is commonly spread by aerosolized water droplets. This mist is often created by hot tubs as well as air conditioning systems commonly used in hotels and apartment buildings. Fortunately, however, the disease is not transmitted between people.

Recently, there have been significant outbreaks, including 34 confirmed cases in Hampton, New Hampshire, in 2018 and 90 infected people in Flint, Michigan, in 2016. The world’s largest occurrence was in Murcia, Spain, in 2001 when 449 people became ill and six persons died. There is no vaccine for Legionnaires’ disease; its prevention depends on the maintenance of water systems.

The National Academies’ report recommends increased and uniform nationwide regulations to prevent the bacteria from flourishing. Piecemeal regulations currently exist across the country. Some laws govern water towers, Veterans Health Administration buildings, and healthcare facilities accepting Medicare or Medicaid funds.

Recent ecofriendly initiatives have resulted in “green” buildings reducing their water-heater temperatures below 140 degrees Fahrenheit, a level at which Legionella can generally survive. Consequently, the report recommends revised standards for energy conservation certifications and calls for the prohibition of low-flow water fixtures in hospitals that commonly restrict disinfectant levels.

With the increased risk of this deadly disease and the potential for additional regulations, facility managers should seek advice to ensure compliance with state and federal regulations and industry standards. Litigation frequently arises after an outbreak. Building owners and managers should take steps to protect their occupants from disease and their companies from liability.

David Governo and Vincent DePalo represent clients in environmental and toxic tort matters nationwide. They regularly follow scientific, medical and legal developments in toxic tort claims, including Legionnaires’ disease, asbestos, chemicals, lead, and mold. If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact David Governo at david.governo@smithduggan.com or Vincent DePalo at vincent.depalo@smithduggan.com.