New York Pushes Through New Rules to Fight Legionnaires' as Death Toll Reaches 12

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By Maggie Fox

New York City’s pushing out new regulations to help prevent any future outbreaks of Legionnaire’s disease like the ongoing outbreak that’s now infected 113 people and killed 12 of them.

While people are no longer becomingly newly sick, new cases are being identified after doctors test people who got sick in recent weeks, officials told a news conference Monday.

Inspectors have checked out 161 buildings in the South Bronx neighborhood affected by the outbreak, city officials said, and found 39 have the specific type of cooling tower linked to the spread of Legionnaires’.

"We are confident the Legionnaires’ outbreak in the South Bronx has been contained, and are working with our partners in the City Council to protect the entire city in the long-term through stringent new regulations for building owners," said Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“We are confident the Legionnaires’ outbreak in the South Bronx has been contained."

"New York is the first major city in the nation to propose new registration, inspection, and enforcement standards for the cooling towers which harbor Legionnaires’ bacteria," he said.

The new legislation will require regular cleaning of the cooling towers to kill the bacteria that cause Legionnaires’. The germs thrive in warm water and people can breathe them in when contaminated droplets disperse in the air.

Cooling systems, hot tubs and even showers can spread the bacteria, which usually only make very vulnerable people sick. These include the elderly, cancer patients, people infected with the AIDS virus and smokers.

“By proposing unprecedented standards and oversight for cooling tower inspections, we are leading the way in reducing the risk of future outbreaks,” City Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett said in a statement.

The new rules, to be published Tuesday, will also require building owners to register cooling towers with the Department of Buildings, get annual certification that cooling towers have been inspected, tested, cleaned and disinfected and to show that any cooling towers that are removed or shut down get properly sanitized.

“To the building owners ... this is the height of irresponsibility for a building owner that has a cooling tower to have not checked the cooling tower by now, or treated the cooling tower by now,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said at a news conference.

“We offered last week free testing by the there's not even a cost involved. This is routine and regular maintenance,” Cuomo added.

“People are getting sick, people are dying,” Cuomo said. “Building owners who are not complying, I believe, will face legal consequences and legal liability.”

The Legionella bacteria, which cause Legionnaires’ disease, are very common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 8,000 to 18,000 people are hospitalized with Legionnaires' disease each year in the U.S.

“We have no idea what would be found if we tested every cooling tower in New York City."

Victims get pneumonia and it’s difficult to tell what germ is causing the infection unless doctors look specifically for Legionella.

The bacteria are not a risk unless people breathe in droplets and they infect the lungs. The infection is not transmitted from person to person and drinking even contaminated water doesn’t make people sick.

Studies have shown that a common type of water disinfection called chloramination can lower the risk of the bacteria growing in water tanks. It involves adding ammonia to cholorinated water.

City officials said it’s easier and more efficient to disinfect all cooling towers than to test each one for Legionnaires’ and other pathogens.

“We have no idea what would be found if we tested every cooling tower in New York City,” Bassett said.