Fear of Legionnaires’ disease is hitting close to home for Illinois politicians after tests at the Illinois Capitol complex showed the “possible presence” of Legionella bacteria in the hot-water system, according to state officials. Legionella is the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease.

Legionnaires’ disease has been a hot-button topic since last October after the deadly respiratory illness reared its ugly head at the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy (IVHQ) for the third time in three years. Thirteen residents have died and dozens more sickened from the disease at the IVHQ since July 2015.

Employees at the Illinois Capitol complex have been warned to use just a “pencil-sized stream of water” to wash their hands.

Officials said they’re not aware of any cases of Legionnaires’ disease in state employees or visitors to the 14-building complex. Out of an abundance of caution, however, they’ve removed faucet aerators, shut down the showers, instructed employees to turn off all nebulizers and humidifiers, and to use just a “pencil-sized stream of water” to wash their hands to eliminate the spread of the disease.

How they can accomplish that in bathrooms with automatic faucets is unclear.

Preliminary testing, which came back positive, was originally ordered after a pipe burst in the nearby Illinois State Armory. The Armory’s hot-water system connects to all of the buildings in the complex. Additional testing has been performed and results will be returned this month.

How do you catch Legionnaires’ disease? 

Legionella bacteria are contracted by inhaling microscopic water droplets, usually 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:

  • large water systems
  • large plumbing systems
  • cooling towers in air conditioning systems
  • hot water tanks and heaters
  • showers and faucets
  • swimming pools
  • hot tubs and whirlpools (often in hotel pool areas)
  • equipment used in physical therapy
  • mist machines and sink sprayers
  • decorative fountains.

Are you at risk of contracting Legionnaires’? 

Anyone can get Legionnaires’ disease, but those at higher risk of infection include:

  • people 50 or older
  • smokers, both current and former
  • heavy drinkers of alcohol
  • people with chronic lung disease
  • people with suppressed immune systems
  • organ-transplant recipients
  • individuals who are following specific drug protocols (for example, corticosteroids).