10 Dead In New York Legionnaires' Outbreak; City Offers Free Inspections

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By Maggie Fox

Ten people have died from Legionnaires’ disease in an outbreak traced to five air conditioning systems, New York City health officials said Thursday.

More than 100 people have been diagnosed with the infection, caused by bacteria breathed in with contaminated water droplets. All the affected buildings are in New York’s Bronx borough.

The city’s health department ordered that all buildings with cooling towers be tested within the next two weeks. Any that are contaminated must be disinfected – usually by scrubbing out tanks with chlorine. The city’s also offered to pay for the testing.

“We expect building owners to be responsible for cleaning and maintaining their cooling towers and we intend to hold them responsible for the spread of any disease,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.

“Providing free testing should help restore the public’s confidence that government is taking every precaution possible. This expanded testing will also provide the state valuable data as to the amount of Legionnella in systems across the state and any potential dangers in surrounding neighborhoods in the Bronx or other parts of the state. The best time to act is before an outbreak occurs.”

Legionnaires’ disease is caused by Legionnella bacteria, and it’s easily treated with antibiotics. But people with weaker immune systems, such as the elderly or patients with diseases such as cancer, are especially vulnerable to infection.

It doesn’t pass from person to person but many people in an affected building can be infected from the same source. Warm temperatures can help the bacteria thrive.

Legionnaires' got its name from an outbreak in Philadelphia in 1976, when it made 221 people sick and killed 34. Most victims were attending an American Legion convention at a single hotel.

De Blasio said he’s invited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to come help. “The CDC has agreed and is preparing a team,” he said.