Sick with Legionnaires’ disease?
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Elliot Olsen has regained millions of dollars for people harmed by Legionnaires’ disease. If you or a family member contracted Legionnaires in New York City, please call (612) 337-6126 for a free consultation.

As Legionnaires’ disease illnesses continue to mount in near-record numbers in New York City, a joint investigation this summer by WNYC News and the Gothamist revealed that almost half of the city’s cooling towers are out of compliance with the law.

“As the Health Department issues violations to bring towers into compliance, many buildings with cooling towers are still failing to report the results of their inspections, leaving us to wonder if inspections are occurring at all,” NYC council member Ben Kallos told WNYC.

The 2015 law (Local Law 77), which was co-sponsored by Kallos and introduced by council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, passed unanimously by the New York City Council in a 42-0 vote after the deadliest outbreak of Legionnaires struck the city, killing 16 and sickening more than 130 in the south Bronx that year.

The cause of that outbreak? A cooling tower at the Opera House Hotel in the Bronx.

A current cluster of Legionnaires cases has killed one person and sickened 29 in Washington Heights, the second major outbreak to hit the area this year. The first killed one and sickened 27 over the summer.

The cause of the first outbreak was a cooling tower at the Sugar Hill Project in Harlem. The source of the current outbreak is under investigation.

Data recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that the state of New York accounted for 37 percent of the nationwide cases in 2018, and those numbers continue to rise.

The discovery by WYNC and the Gothamist that building owners are openly disregarding Local Law 77 was the driving force behind the introduction of four new bills last week to reform the landmark law, which is considered the most stringent in the nation.

Four new proposals
Kallos introduced bill 1149-2018, which would require the NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) to send electronic reminders and pre-filled inspection forms to owners and operators of cooling towers. It also would require qualified inspectors to document and submit inspection results electronically to the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH).

Council members Mark Levine and Kallos introduced bill 1158-2018, which would require the DOHMH commissioner, in consultation with the DOB, to hold information sessions at least twice annually for building owners regarding maintenance, cleaning, and inspections of cooling towers, and to post the information online.

Council member Ydanis A. Rodriguez, who was frustrated when he was unable to obtain data on inspections or violations for towers in Washington Heights this summer, introduced bill 1164-2018. That law would require the DOHMH, in consultation with the DOB, to annually report to the City Council on the results of cooling tower inspections and make such results available online. “That information had to be collected, because of the open data system that we follow in our city,” Rodriguez said at that time to CBS2. “However, it is not easy to navigate and identify this information.”

The DOHMH has 70 inspectors conducting more than 5,000 cooling-tower inspections a year, armed with a list of 30 potential violations. They also can levy fines from $500 to $2,000 per violation. Rodriguez also wants to increase the penalty for buildings that do not have their cooling towers inspected annually. He wants the maximum fine raised to $5,000.

The final bill, bill 1166-2018, was introduced by council member Rafael Salamanca, Jr. It would require the DOHMH, in consultation with the DOB, to conduct a year-long assessment of all potential determinants of Legionnaires’ disease in the city.

Public hearings for the bills will be held in November.

Current requirements
State and City laws currently require owners of cooling towers to comply with the following regulations:

  • Register all existing cooling towers with New York State and DOB.
  • Register any new cooling tower with the state and DOB before beginning operations.
  • Securely affix a DOB cooling tower registration number to each tower.
  • Test each cooling tower every 90 days.
  • When replacing system parts, use corrosion-resistant, sunlight-blocking materials.
  • Perform cleaning at least two times per year.
  • Install and main drift eliminators as specified.
  • Perform daily, automatic chemical treatment of system water and continuously recirculate water (unless otherwise justified).
  • Perform routine manual water quality monitoring of temperature, pH, conductivity and biocide concentration unless this process is automated.
  • Perform microbial monitoring.
  • Perform weekly routine monitoring.
  • Perform inspection by a qualified person every 90 days tower is in use.
  • If the tower was shut down – without water treatment and recirculation – for more than five days, clean, drain and disinfect before reuse.
  • Certify annually that a tower was inspected, tested, cleaned, and disinfected as required.
  • Keep records of activities onsite for three years.
  • Notify the state and DOB if the tower is removed or taken out of use, and confirm it was drained and sanitized.
  • Develop and follow a Maintenance Program and Plan (MPP) in line with American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE 188-2015) Standard.

What is a cooling tower?
A cooling tower, which can be found in or on top of high-rise buildings or outside of commercial/industrial buildings, is designed to recirculate water to make the inside of a building cooler.

Cooling towers remove heat from a building or facility by spraying water down through the tower to exchange heat into the inside of a building, according to the CDC. The towers contain large amounts of water and are breeding grounds for Legionella bacteria if not properly disinfected and maintained.

Because water within the towers is heated via heat exchange, it becomes an ideal environment for heat-loving Legionella to grow.

When that bacteria is breathed in – in the form of microscopic droplets, generally mist or vapor – it can infect a person with Legionnaires’ disease. The bacteria are found primarily in human-made environments.

Legionnaires info

Legionnaires’ disease – also called legionellosis and Legionella pneumonia – is a severe type of lung infection. It is treatable with antibiotics, although if it is not diagnosed early, it can lead to severe complications. It is not contagious; that is, it cannot be passed from person to person.

Although Legionnaires’ disease primarily affects the lungs, it occasionally can cause infections in wounds and other parts of the body, including the heart. It also can lead to life-threatening complications, including respiratory failure, septic shock, and acute kidney failure.

According to the CDC, an estimated 25,000 cases of pneumonia due to Legionella bacteria (Legionella pneumophila) occur yearly in the U.S. Only 5,000 cases are reported, however, because of its nonspecific signs and symptoms.

About one in 10 people who get sick from Legionnaires will die.