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COVID-19 and Legionella: Testing and Treating Water Before Employees Return

May 28, 2020
Stagnant water creates the perfect environment for Legionella bacteria growth.

During the COVID-19 quarantine, businesses and manufacturing operations around the world 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. 

This issue has triggered warnings released by the CDC, the Alliance to Prevent Legionnaires’ Disease, and Purdue University.

To help businesses protect employees and the public while quickly returning to normal operations, Canadian water treatment experts Pace Chemicals has partnered with Spartan Bioscience to provide rapid on-site DNA detection of Legionella bacteria throughout British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Legionella is common in many water supply sources,” said Glenn Strelau Sr., vice president at Pace Chemicals Ltd. “Under certain conditions, such as stagnant water environments, these bacteria can thrive in biofilm, scale and sediment within the building water system piping. 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.”

The Legionella–COVID connection

Since it is an endosymbiont living symbiotically in another organism, Legionella likely already existed in the pipe. 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.  According to Matt Freije in his article at LAMPS (Legionella and Management Plan Support), “Based on experience and scientific studies, expecting flushing to solve a Legionella problem in a shutdown building is unrealistic.”

This is important because COVID-19 (caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus) 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 SARS-CoV-2, legionella pneumophila was detected in 20 percent (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 showerheads. 

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

The Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations (COHSR), Part II, Division III, titled “HVAC Systems,” contains the standards businesses and water treatment service providers must do to stay compliant according to the Canadian Standards Association guidelines. These include instructions for operation, inspection, testing, cleaning and maintenance of HVAC systems. Employers are also required to appoint a qualified person to put the instructions into action and to complete a written report regarding actions or incidents.

Testing could delay 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 SARS-CoV-2. 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 offsite shipping and a minimum 10- to 14-day turnaround,” Strelau pointed out. “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, 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 COHSR and CSA guidelines, the program promotes system cleanliness, disease prevention, energy efficiency and compliance.

Risk management

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.

An 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.

Companies have become acutely aware of the daily cost of a shutdown. Delaying the shutdown further due to testing can cost money. A Legionnaire’s 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.