THE BRONX — The city will require all cooling towers to be registered and inspected regularly for the bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease following an outbreak in the South Bronx that has so far killed 7 people and sickened 86 others.
The city believes that the outbreak is linked to five cooling towers at Lincoln Hospital, Concourse Plaza, the Opera House Hotel, a Verizon office building and Streamline Plastic Co. where the bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease was found. The outbreak began July 10.
"This is the largest outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that we are aware of in New York City," Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett said at a press conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The mayor said he is currently working on with the City Council to draft the law, which will be introduced later this week.
"We have to position ourselves for the future," de Blasio said.
Seventeen cooling towers in the area were identified and tested for the legionella bacteria, but only five came back positive. The towers, which provides cooling for the buildings' air conditioning systems, are separate from a building's drinking water supply.
As the water is heated and cooled it can turn into mist and spread through the air.
And because people with underlying conditions such as asthma and HIV and AIDS are more affected by the disease, the South Bronx, which has one of the highest asthma rates in the country and higher rates of HIV and AIDS, are a more vulnerable.
"Sadly, this is a disease that does discriminate," de Blasio said.
The disease cannot be spread from person to person and the city's drinking water is safe, said Bassett.
City officials emphasized that people with the flu-like symptoms seek treatment immediately, especially if they have underlying conditions or live in the South Bronx.
The outbreak shows that the city has to take the threat of Legionnaires' disease more seriously, said de Blasio. For example, the city was unaware of the location of all the cooling towers in the city, hence the new registration requirement.
The mayor also said no law regarding cooling towers was in place because there were no recommendations to have one from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Under the new law, there will be financial penalties for failing to register, test or decontaminate cooling towers where legionella is found. The city will also have the power to step in and clean a cooling tower and bill the landlord if they refuse to follow procedures.
"For too long the risk of Legionnaires was underestimated," de Blasio said.
Janet Stout, director of Special Pathogens Laboratory in Pittsburgh and an associate professor of research at the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, has studied Legionnaires' disease for 30 years.
She said the United States lags other countries and cites such as Australia, England, the Netherlands and Spain when it comes to preventing outbreaks.
"It saddens me greatly every time these outbreaks occur because they are absolutely preventable," said Stout.
After 10 years, Stout said the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-conditioning Engineers approved a standard risk management framework to prevent the spread of Legionnaires' in building cooling systems.
But the recommendations did not include a standard for testing due to industry concerns, said Stout who was a voting member of the committee. Bassett said the city is consulting a team of scientists to help develop standards.
Quebec City, which had an outbreak of 180 cases and 13 deaths in 2012, now has some of the toughest Legionnaires' inspection standards around and requires monthly testing of cooling towers, said Stout.
"The rest of the world has really been much more proactive than the United States," Stout said. "That's why legislation is so important because people will respond and do the right thing if there are consequences."