Legionella a Risk in Idle Water Systems Produced by Quarantine

Pace Chemicals is performing on-site DNA detection of Legionella bacteria in businesses’ water systems that have been unused during the pandemic and are now being operated once again

Legionella a Risk in Idle Water Systems Produced by Quarantine

A Pace Chemicals technician performs testing and checks efficiency on a building’s water system. 

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During the COVID-19 quarantine, many businesses have been shut down for extended periods, leaving potable and nonpotable building water systems idle. Stagnant water creates the perfect environment for Legionella bacteria growth, escalating the risk for Legionnaires’ disease, a deadly respiratory infection with severe pneumonia-like symptoms.

To help businesses protect employees and the public while quickly returning to normal operations, Pace Chemicals has partnered with Spartan Bioscience to provide rapid on-site DNA detection of Legionella bacteria in its Western Canada service area.

Legionella is common in many water supply sources. Under certain conditions, such as stagnant water environments, these bacteria can thrive in biofilm, scale, and sediment within the building water system piping,” says Glenn Strelau, senior vice president at Pace Chemicals. “Yes, the municipal water supply is chlorinated, but this type of bacteria survives by living in certain amoeba, ciliated protozoa, or biofilm, allowing it to multiply and appear in finished water supplies.”

Since it is an endosymbiont living symbiotically in another organism, Legionella likely already existed in the pipes. Although trace amounts rarely result in the disease, when certain Legionella are allowed to propagate and transmit to a susceptible human host, they can cause legionellosis infections.

Merely flushing the system by letting the water run for a while is not an option since the bacteria live in biofilm.

“Based on experience and scientific studies, expecting flushing to solve a Legionella problem in a shutdown building is unrealistic,” says Matt Freije of LAMPS (Legionella and Management Plan Support).

This is important because COVID-19 is exacerbated by the presence of other respiratory pathogens in the body with Legionella presenting as one of the main sources.  An independent study published in The Lancet in May was performed by researchers at Qingdao Women and Children’s Hospital in Qingdao, China. Of the 68 patients displaying serious respiratory symptoms from COVID-19, Legionella pneumophila was detected in 20% (14 patients).

Which Businesses Are Vulnerable?

The most common outbreaks of Legionella have occurred in buildings and facilities with mismanaged water systems, thus the strict regulatory standards. Bacteria thrive in buildings with HVAC systems where water condensation can collect and pool, cooling towers on roofs where standing water is common, and potable systems from water heaters that lead directly to faucets and shower heads.  

Facilities such as gyms and community centers with whirlpool bathtubs, hot tubs, and public spas where water and fouling can occur in system pipes should also seek water testing and treatment before reopening. 

Statistically fatal in one in 10 people, but not transmitted from person to person, Legionnaires’ disease is contracted when people breathe in contaminated water vapor, similar to the airborne transmission of the coronavirus. Thus, it is important to be able to identify where in systems the best samples can be collected for testing.    

“Traditionally, culture testing methods can be delayed as they require off-site shipping and a minimum 10 to 14 day turnaround,” Strelau says. “This can lead to a delayed response to a potential Legionnaires’ outbreak.” 

Spartan Bioscience’s proprietary technology detects live bacteria. Utilizing a test method validated by ISO 12869 (International Organization for Standardization), it provides detection results within one hour. The fast response makes formulating an action plan far easier and safer to execute, thereby indicating when it is safe to return to work or resume building operations the same day, rather than 10 to 14 days later.

Once Legionella’s presence and levels have been determined, Pace water treatment specialists provide an online sanitization procedure. This includes proprietary bio-dispersants to penetrate biofilm and microbial deposits, which minimize the risk of a Legionella outbreak and promote system cleanliness. Specially formulated biocide treatments play an important role in microbiological control. Applied on a strict schedule in accordance with Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations (COHSR) and Canadian Standards Association guidelines, the program promotes system cleanliness, disease prevention, energy efficiency and compliance. 

From washing hands to social distancing, avoiding COVID-19 can be left up to the individual, but Legionella can only be avoided with expert intervention. Pace provides support and service for ongoing compliance by first identifying the internal water management plan team and assigning a trained professional to help them.    

The assigned water treatment specialist conducts routine cleaning and disinfection procedures. During maintenance inspections, they conduct ongoing Legionella testing in vulnerable areas, implement decontamination procedures, and post the latest Legionella publications and resources according to COHSR guidelines. 

A Legionnaires’ outbreak and resulting violations, along with the ensuing insurance and legal ramifications, can break a company. Having a water treatment expert quickly implement these procedures allows companies to avoid costly delays and risks to safely resume operations. 


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