Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Routine Maintenance, Cleaning Key to Eliminating Deadly Bacteria

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Routine Maintenance, Cleaning Key to Eliminating Deadly Bacteria

Article excerpt

The idea that a company's air conditioning cooling tower has the ability to kill probably sounds absurd to most employers. But as officials at the Ford Motor engine casting plant in Cleveland can attest, it shouldn't, considering that sediment and standing water collecting at the base of these units is a prime breeding ground for potentially deadly bacteria.

Casting plant officials were forced to close the plant for nearly a week in March after five employees contracted Legionnaires' disease, a potentially fatal form of pneumonia that officials initially believed was traced to bacteria found in the plant's hot water, heating and air conditioning systems. Although the source has yet to be confirmed, two employees diagnosed with the disease died.

Hiding Places

According to CEC Consultants, a Cleveland based company specializing in developing corporatewide indoor air quality programs, the incident is neither an isolated, nor rare, case. In fact, Legionella bacteria can be found in natural or manmade water sources, as well as soil. Once the bacteria is inhaled, it also can cause Pontiac fever, a flu-like illness that generally has a recovery period of two to five days without treatment.

Towers and hot-water systems - two fixtures in almost every large building - are natural homes to Legionelia bacteria if the systems are not properly maintained. While no government agency requires owners to inspect cooling towers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published guidelines for voluntary compliance that call for cleaning cooling towers at least every six months and continually treating the systems with chemicals to control the bacteria.

"Those who work with or near equipment that is traditionally considered high-risk need to be especlally aware of proper maintenance and controls to minimize the chance of contamination," said John Puskar, P.E., a consultant at CEC. "It's very unlikely that one would ever get Legionella from drinking contaminated water or skin contact. The disease itself is not contagious and cannot be spread from person to person. It's primarily an issue of breathing in droplets from a contaminated source."

The Cure

The good news is that Legionella's ability to thrive, multiply and disseminate can be kept under control, Puskar said. Long-term monitoring and enhanced maintenance practices are the only sure ways to minimize the risk of exposure. …

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