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Reduce the risk

With Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks and the discovery of Legionella bacteria in water systems being such a serious issue, Jamie Tranter, Clearwater Technology, shares some useful advice on controlling the risk

According to the British Lung Foundation, Legionnaires’ Disease is a serious pneumonia caused by the legionella bacteria. People become infected when they inhale water droplets from a contaminated water source such as cooling towers, air conditioning systems and spa pools. Early symptoms include muscle aches, tiredness, headaches, a dry cough and fever. Sometimes people may also have diarrhoea and develop confusion. The symptoms of pneumonia are a cough, shortness of breath and chest pain. It’s no wonder then that the authorities take reports of legionella outbreaks very seriously.

For example, in December 2018, Tendring District Council was fined after a member of public contracted Legionnaires’ Disease having been a regular user of its leisure centre facilities. Colchester Magistrates’ Court heard how the member of public frequently used the showers at Walton Lifestyles when, in November 2016, he fell seriously ill and was taken to hospital where he remained for 18 days. He was diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease, sepsis, pneumonia and chronic kidney failure. Water samples taken from the men’s shower tested positive for the Legionella bacteria. Another case regrettably led to the death of a hospital patient who contracted Legionnaires’ disease while in care.

However, every sector is open to the risk of Legionella bacteria breeding in its hot and cold water systems and those responsible for every building or facility have an obligation to protect staff and visitors from the risk.

It’s less commonly known that Legionella contamination can be devastating to those beyond the walls of your building or facility. When contaminated water droplets enter the air through an aerosol such as the type commonly seen on cooling towers, the risk can be carried further than you might imagine.

One case in the late 90s resulted in the death of a driver who contracted the disease by inhaling airborne Legionella-contaminated water droplets while driving approximately a mile away from the site where the contamination had occurred.

The risk is very real and those in charge of buildings and facilities must take the necessary precautions to control this risk. However, it’s not exactly easy to detect the symptoms of a poorly managed water system that encourages Legionella growth.

There are defined codes of practice to help understand how to measure and control the Legionella risk. The HSE has issued Approved Codes of Practice (ACoP) including L8 which outlines the recommended requirements for the control of Legionella bacteria in water systems and HSG 274 which outlines what businesses must do to comply with L8.

For buildings and facilities used in healthcare, the codes of practice are noticeable tougher and this for good reason. Hospital patients including elderly, new-born and immunosuppressed patients are among the most susceptible to Legionella infection and must therefore be given greater protection. Healthcare organisations are therefore required to adhere to the Department of Health and Social Care’s HTM 04-01 guidance on the management of water supply systems.

While these codes of practice clearly outline what is required in terms of Legionella assessment and treatment, building or facility managers that require additional guidance or simply lack the time and resource to implement the recommended measures should seek out a risk assessment consultant that has the relevant expertise to ensure they are taking the right preventative measures and operating to full compliance.

The first step in controlling the risk is assessing your water system. HSG 274 identifies three areas that should be subjected to risk assessment and these are; cooling towers, hot and cold water systems and any other system that poses a risk – namely any system that produces airborne water droplets.

A comprehensive assessment should include the inspection of obsolete pipework (known as ‘dead legs’ or ‘dead-ends’) such as piping to unused taps where water can stagnate and encourage the growth of Legionella bacteria. Remedial action should then take place to remove any dead legs from the water system, eliminating the opportunity for water to stagnate and create a risk.

Hemp joints are another common area where Legionella bacteria can breed. Hemp joints are notorious for capturing and storing bacteria and as a remedial action, these should be replaced with a safer alternative to hemp that does not encourage the growth of bacteria.

Flexible hoses are commonly lined with a material called EPDM (ethylene propylene diene monomer). This material can encourage the growth of Legionella bacteria. While hoses constructed with EPDM are banned in healthcare environments, they can often be found in water systems in other sectors. As remedial action, these can be replaced by non-EPDM hoses or solid copper fittings.

Major assets must also be inspected. From cold storage tanks to calorifiers (hot water heaters) and cooling towers, major assets must be inspected for scale, corrosion and sediment which are all warning signs that Legionella bacteria may be present in the system. Remedial action to remove risk can include the cleaning and disinfection of these major assets.

A Legionella risk assessment must also include a schematic drawing of the building’s water systems and temperature profile of both the assets and outlets

Legionella risk assessments must be carried out by a competent individual who is confident that they have a full understanding of the relevant codes of practice. While your building or facility management might make every effort to ensure full safety and compliance, assigning the responsibility to an under-qualified individual can result in non-compliance and an un-safe water system.

In many cases, building and FMs will outsource the responsibility of risk assessment and remedial action to an experienced water treatment provider. When searching for an experienced provider it’s important to ensure you’re being offered more than a one-size-fits-all solution and that the provider can instead tailor a bespoke risk assessment and risk management solution to your specific business.

Each building or facility will have its own site-specific risks and it’s essential that your water treatment provider recognises these risks and builds a programme around them. By utilising the expertise of qualified and experienced risk assessment experts, buildings and facilities across the UK can take control over the growing risk of Legionella in their water systems.

About Sarah OBeirne

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