Ford Motor Company found a “low concentration” of Legionella bacteria, which is the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, after testing a cooling tower at its Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo, MO, officials announced Dec. 8, according to KCTV5.

“We take the safety of our workforce very seriously,” a statement read. “When routine testing detected a low concentration of Legionella bacteria in an outside cooling tower, we quickly disinfected that location and notified our workforce. The level of Legionella detected in our recent sampling is very low and does not represent a health risk to our workers. Legionella is common and naturally occurs in water systems like rivers, streams and lakes. The vast majority of those exposed to the bacterium do not become ill.”

The disclosure comes after Legionnaires’ disease was confirmed in a Ford employee who subsequently underwent surgery Nov. 28 at Liberty Hospital. Family members said they believe she was sickened while working at the assembly plant.

Officials at the Clay County Public Health Center (CCPHC) said in November that the disease didn’t necessarily originate at Ford, and that they were not doing any testing at the facility. The CCPHC has yet to identify a specific source for the illness.

Ford’s original statement when news of the employee’s illness was announced read: “We regularly test for Legionella out of an abundance of caution for our employees. All test results have been negative throughout the entire year.”

What is Legionnaires’ disease? 

Legionnaires’ disease – also called Legionellosis and Legionella pneumonia – is a severe type of pneumonia or lung infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 25,000 cases of pneumonia due to Legionella bacteria (Legionella pneumophila) occur each year, but only 5,000 cases are reported because of the disease’s nonspecific signs and symptoms. Ten percent of those infected die.

How is Legionnaires’ contracted? 

Individuals are infected by Legionella bacteria by inhaling microscopic water droplets in the form of mist or vapor. The bacteria, which grow best in warm water, are found primarily in human-made environments. Outbreaks have been linked to a range of sources, such as:

  • cooling towers in air conditioning systems
  • water systems
  • large plumbing systems
  • decorative fountains
  • mist machines
  • hot tubs and whirlpools
  • hot water tanks and heaters
  • showers and faucets
  • swimming pools
  • equipment used in physical therapy.

Who is at risk of infection?

Anyone can get the disease, but those at the greatest risk of infection include:

  • people 50 years old or older
  • smokers (current or former)
  • heavy drinkers of alcoholic beverages
  • people with chronic lung disease
  • people with weakened immune systems
  • organ-transplant recipients (kidney, heart, etc.)
  • individuals following certain drug protocols (for instance, corticosteroids).