Contaminated Cooling Tower at Co-op City May Be Linked to Bronx Legionnaires' Disease Spike: Officials

Hundreds of residents in Co-op City gathered for a meeting with the city Health Department Tuesday after officials said a contaminated cooling tower there may be linked to 75 percent of the dozen cases of Legionnaires' disease that have stricken Bronx residents since December.

Ronald Hines said his son was one of the 12 people who contracted the potentially deadly form of pneumonia that's spread through the air.

"He lost mobility, he lost his speech," he said.

"It took my family through a lot of concern and emotion," said Hines. "It's horrible."

The Health Department had issued a warning about a possible spike in Legionnaires' cases in the Bronx after 11 cases were reported in the borough in December, compared with two in December 2013 and three in December 2012. The 11 cases reported last month represent nearly 20 percent of the total of 61 cases the borough had in all of 2014. Most cases were in the northeast Bronx.

The 12th case was reported this month. The Health Department said more testing needs to be done to definitively link the Co-op City cooling tower to the outbreak, but that eight of the 12 Bronx residents who have developed the disease live in the Baychester housing development and the water in the tower tested positive for the bacteria Legionella, which causes the illness.

People are exposed to legionella bacteria by inhaling contaminated aerosols from cooling towers, whirlpool spas, showers and faucets or drinking water contaminated with the bacteria.

"Those mists can be dispersed by a variety of things, by showers, spas and commonly by cooling towers, which give off a lot of evaporative mist," said Sharon Balter, M.D., of the Health Department. "It cannot be spread person to person."

The Health Department says the infected water is used to cool Co-op City's heating and electrical systems; the water in the tower is self-contained and separate from the water use for drinking, cooking and bathing. The agency said Co-op City water is safe to continue using for those purposes, and that it is working with RiverBay Corporation, the company that manages Co-op City, on decontamination.

Co-op City board attorney Jeffrey Buss took a sip of water drawn from the faucet at the meeting Tuesday, trying to drive home the point that the cooling tower water is totally separate from the water that residents drink and with which they bathe and cook.

"There is legionella in the cooling tower.  It's not in the drinking water here," he said.

The Health Department said RiverBay Corporation has already begun disinfecting the cooling tower with chlorine; it was shut down for physical cleaning, then it will be disinfected with more chlorine to control the growth of legionella bacteria. The agency said no disruption to tenants' heat or hot water is expected, and testing of bacteria levels will be ongoing to ensure minimal risk to exposure.

According to RiverBay Corporation's website, Co-op City has about 50,000 residents.

"Public health and safety are our primary concern," Buss said in an earlier statement. "We are doing everything possible to eliminate any risk which may exist."

The RiverBay statement said the company has operated a cooling tower on Bartow Avenue in the Bronx for nearly 50 years without any problems, and that it employs professional water treatment companies "at a significant annual cost" to regularly test and treat its water. The last such test, the company said, was in August 2014 and showed no signs of the bacteria legionella.

Legionnaires' disease usually sets in two to 10 days after exposure to the bacteria and represents with symptoms similar to pneumonia, including shortness of breath, high fever, chills and chest pains. People with Legionnaire's also experience appetite loss, fatigue and muscle aches.

It cannot be spread person-to-person and those at highest risk for contracting the illness include the elderly, cigarette smokers, people with chronic lung or immune system disease and those receiving immunosuppressive drugs.

Legionnaires', discovered in 1976, is relatively rare and can have a fatality rate of anywhere from 5 percent to 40 percent, the Health Department says. It can be successfully treated with antibiotics.

The Health Department sent a memo to providers to remind them to test for Legionnaires' when Bronx patients present with pneumonia symptoms.  

-- Checkey Beckford contributed to this report.

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