(Oct. 3, 2014) When testing for Legionnaire’s Disease at an uptown Ocean City motel last month, county health officials found something unexpected: the bacterium that causes the pneumonia-like illness might not have developed in the motel’s water system after all, but instead came in through the city’s own water supply lines.
Tests of the city’s water supply are under way to determine the extent of contamination by the bacterium Legionella in those lines, following a positive finding for the infection’s presence in a 145th Street fire hydrant.
The department conducted that analysis after a pair of visitors at the uptown Econo Lodge later contracted the disease and testing at the motel itself indicated the bacterium’s presence.
Although that led to the assumption – and a local television report – that the motel was the source of the problem, that might not have been the case.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to say, definitively, what the source [of the contamination] is,” said Debra Stevens of the Worcester County Health Department. “Additional sample sites have been identified in that area … we need to see if we can get a better understanding of where the problem is and what further actions the town might need to take.”
Results from additional test sites are expected at the end of next week. Until then, the health department is “not recommending” any restriction on water usage in the city, Stevens said.
“We won’t know if there’s a more widespread problem until we get those results back,” she said.
In the meantime, the city has “increased the amount of chlorine in the [water] system in order to further safeguard the water supply against the potential of any microbial growth,” said city Communications Manager Jessica Waters.
“Our water department is doing additional sampling to determine what notifications, if any, should be made to the public,” Waters said. “It something we obviously take very seriously.”
Legionnaire’s Disease is a form of pneumonia, caused by a person inhaling aerosolized water – i.e. water vapor, steam, or mist – that carries the bacteria. The subsequent infection of the lungs causes flu-like symptoms that usually are not serious in healthy adults, but can be deadly for the elderly and persons with otherwise weakened immune systems. It is not contagious.
Legionnaire’s is covered under national-level disease reporting standards, meaning that a case reported by any physician across the nation goes through a certain protocol.
This includes asking the patient where they may have travelled or vacationed within the infection’s incubation period. If two or more people within a span of two years report travelling to the same location during the time they came into contact with the bacteria, an investigation is triggered.
Two years ago, such an investigation was conducted at the Sea Watch condominium, and another instance was confirmed at the Plim Plaza a year before that.
In both cases, however, the city’s distribution system itself was not contaminated, unlike the current situation.
Even if Legionella is identified at other locations within the city’s water infrastructure, it is unlikely that a “ground zero” location of bacterial proliferation will be found.
Legionella is present, to some extent, in many water supplies, but is usually rendered harmless by chlorination or other treatment. However, it can rapidly multiply in stagnant water that sits at higher-than-average temperatures. Pipes that are not flushed frequently are common sites of Legionella growth and re-introduction to the water supply.
“Anywhere that has plumbing structures that have low-flow or dead-ends is prone,” Stevens said. “Again, I don’t know that anyone is going to be able to say definitively where it came from.”
Those concerned about exposure can simply refrain from using saunas, hot tubs, whirlpools, and showers – taking tub baths instead – in order to avoid breathing in contaminated water vapors.
Although the Econo Lodge and Sea Watch cases resulted in only minor illnesses, the Plim Plaza incident resulted in the death of an elderly woman. A class-action suit by exposed visitors against the Harrison Group was settled last year.