Elevated levels of Legionella bacteria were discovered at the Town Hall in West Orange, NJ, after Legionnaires’ disease hospitalized a long-time municipal employee.

After learning of the worker’s illness, officials of the central Essex County town hired an outside environmental company to test water sources at the two buildings in which the employee worked.

One of the buildings – which was not named to protect the privacy of the employee – was free of Legionella, which causes Legionnaires’ disease. However, five of the 10 samples from Town Hall returned “elevated levels” of the potentially deadly bacteria.

Despite the positive test at Town Hall, it is unknown whether the worker contracted their illness on the job. The employee is “making a recovery,” according to West Orange business administrator John Sayers. The employee’s name, job title, gender, and age were not released.

All municipal buildings to be tested
Town Hall, which is located at 66 Main Street and built in 1937, houses all of the city departments. The basement contains a garage, storage space, and a block of six cells. On the first floor are the police headquarters, courtroom, and offices for the mayor, clerk, treasurer, and others. The second floor has offices for the engineer, director, building inspector, the street department, and a drafting room.

Because of the positive test at Town Hall, the township will be testing all other municipal buildings. As a precaution, officials disconnected the potable water supply at Town Hall and other “remedial steps” are being taken.

“We have been assured by outside consultants and experts that by shutting down the potable water supply, installing filters … replacing the hot water heater, which has already been disconnected, and making plumbing repairs, that the conditions will be remedied and safe,” West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi said. “We will ensure that all prescribed remedies are in place as quickly as possible.”

Employees and visitors to West Orange municipal buildings who have recently suffered from or are currently exhibiting pneumonia- or flu-like symptoms (see below) should seek immediate medical attention from their primary health-care provider. They should also contact the West Orange Health & Welfare Department (WOHWD) – call 973-325-4120 or email healthdept@westorange.org – to report their illness.

West Orange is located approximately 5 miles west of downtown Newark and 13 miles west of New York City.

Legionnaires’ disease FAQs

What is Legionnaires’ disease?
Legionnaires’ disease – also known as legionellosis and Legionella pneumonia – is a severe type of pneumonia (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 yearly in the United States. Only 5,000 cases are reported, however, because of its nonspecific signs and symptoms.

Ten percent of people who become infected with Legionnaires’ disease will die from the infection.

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.

Where do Legionella live?
Outbreaks have been linked to a number of sources, such as:

  • water systems, like those used in hospitals, nursing homes, and hotels
  • large plumbing systems
  • faucets and showers
  • hot tubs and whirlpools
  • equipment used in physical therapy
  • hot-water tanks and heaters
  • swimming pools
  • decorative fountains
  • mist machines and hand-held sprayers
  • the cooling towers of air conditioning systems.

Who is most at risk?
Anyone can become ill from Legionella, but those most susceptible to infection include:

  • people 50 years of age or older
  • smokers, current and former
  • heavy drinkers of alcoholic beverages
  • people with chronic lung disease
  • people with compromised immune systems
  • recipients of organ transplants
  • individuals who are on specific drug protocols (corticosteroids, to name one).

What are the symptoms?
Legionnaires’ disease is similar to other types of pneumonia. Symptoms can even resemble those of flu, which is why Legionnaires’ often goes under-reported. Those symptoms include:

  • cough
  • shortness of breath
  • fever
  • muscle aches
  • headaches
  • gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.