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Owners, managers urged to adopt new technology to keep Legionnaires out of their buildings

As the city probes another outbreak of Legionnaires Disease clustered in Washington Heights, building owners and managers are being encouraged to look to new technologies to help eradicate the bacteria once and for all.

Cooling tower experts say a new app that allows building managers to make dry runs of their cooling tower inspections will help combat the spread of Legionnaires’ disease in the city.

During a Building Owners and Managers Association meeting, two cooling tower experts demonstrated the app that was designed by Groveware with the help of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

L-R: Thomas Layden, EBS Consulting; Ryan Litonjua, EBS Consulting Group; and Steven Serrano, NYC Cooling Tower Inspections & Services

New York City Cooling Tower Inspection and Services CEO Steven Serrano and EBS Consulting Group principal Tom Layden showed how the app allows building managers to run through the same checklist that city inspectors do.

Officially called the NYC Cooling Tower Self Assessment Tool, the app  allows users to fill in their building information and guides them through requirements for meeting compliance and avoiding fines during inspections.

“If it was my building where I’m the building manager or the chief engineer, I would say, ‘Moving forward this is a requirement,” said Serrano.

The event came as New York saw its first outbreak of deadly Legionnaires disease this year in Washington Heights where eight cases have been reported from the bacteria, Legionella, which grows in warm water and causes fever, chills, muscle aches and coughs.

The city is on high alert following two previous outbreaks which sickened hundreds and left 10 people dead in the Bronx in 2015 and Flushing in 2017.

While admitting there is no direct relationship between compliance documentation and stopping Legionnaires’ outbreaks, Serrano told the BOMA group, “It’s a great step forward in the right direction and that’ll help.

“We’re trying to create a foundation to allow us to steer away from developing Legionnaires’ diseases and this is the first time anyone’s ever done this.”

As the new app mimics what inspectors would look for when they check out a site, Layden said it’s a strong protective measure that all building managers should utilize.

“This Legionnaires’ thing is not going away and the more buildings can do to prevent monetary fines and potential exposure the better,” Layden said.

Layden said the app could save lives and money helping managers avoid up to $6,000 in fines from violations during inspections.

Meanwhile Serrano said the city still had a lot to let when it comes to battling Legionnaires. Currently, cooling tower experts who apply the chemicals required to clean water towers are the same experts who are qualified to do the inspections. He suggested the city include a law that requires a third-party independent evaluation.

“New York City has to change in many ways to safeguard the public,” Serrano added. “We’re at the fledgling state of understanding exactly how to create a comprehensive foundation to protect the public and New York City’s population from Legionnaires’ disease.”

A spokesman for the city’s health department said, “The [app] has gotten very positive reviews by property owners and building managers; to date we have received 348 registrations or downloads for the tool.”

Legionellosis has been a reportable condition in New York State since 1985. Reported cases in the city have risen from 47 in year 2000 to 438 in year 2015. In response to the Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks of 2015, the City Council passed Local Law 77 to reduce and contain Legionella growth in cooling towers, becoming the first U.S. municipality to adopt a set of  requirements to ensure cooling tower maintenance. Changes to the Health Code went into effect in May 2016.

In June of 2016, the Health Department announced a plan to reduce the risk of Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks in the city, which, in addition to implementing the most aggressive cooling tower regulation in the nation, included the hiring of more inspectors and training of City personnel to inspect towers and better capacity to conduct lab testing.

The most recent outbreak in Upper Manhattan has sickened 25 people and caused one fatality, according to the city Health Department.

All suspect cooling towers in Washington Heights and Hamilton Heights have been cleaned, and pending final test results, officials believe the cluster has been contained.

In a move to allay fears earlier this month, Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett issued a press release detailing the city’s response to the outbreak. She said, “While most people exposed to Legionella don’t get sick, individuals ages 50 and above, especially those who smoke and have chronic lung conditions, are at a higher risk. This disease is very treatable with antibiotics. I encourage anyone with symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease to seek care early.”

Legionnaires’ disease is a type of pneumonia that is caused by the bacteria Legionella, which grows in warm water. Symptoms resemble other types of pneumonia and can include fever, chills, muscle aches, and cough. Most cases of Legionnaires’ disease can be traced to plumbing systems where conditions are favorable for Legionella growth, such as cooling towers, whirlpool spas, hot tubs, humidifiers, hot water tanks, and evaporative condensers of large air-conditioning systems.

Individuals only get sick by breathing in water vapor containing Legionella, and the disease is not transmitted from person to person. Individuals at higher risk include those ages 50 and above, cigarette smokers, and people with chronic lung disease or compromised immune systems. People living or working in the area who are experiencing these symptoms should seek medical attention with a primary care provider or seek urgent care.

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