Sick with Legionnaires’ disease?
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The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) announced that the year’s second Legionnaires’ disease outbreak to strike Washington Heights had increased to 32 cases, with one death. The DOHMH also said the investigation was “nearing its conclusion.”

The number sickened in the outbreak has quadrupled since Oct. 5, when acting health commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot initially confirmed eight people with the bacterial infection. The source of the Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires, has not been identified.

The first outbreak – the investigation into which concluded in mid-August – sickened 27 individuals and also included one fatality. The source of that outbreak was identified as a cooling tower at the Sugar Hill Project (898 St. Nicholas Avenue), a high-rise building on St. Nicholas Avenue near 155th Street. Twenty-five of the 27 patients were hospitalized. A strain of Legionella bacteria was common between six victims and a cooling tower at Sugar Hill Project.

Because of the second outbreak’s proximity to Sugar Hill Project, the DOHMH ordered that building’s owners to re-clean and re-disinfect the cooling system. That process reportedly was completed the day the health department announced the latest outbreak.

According to the DOHMH’s original statement in October, the department sampled 20 cooling towers within a mile radius to identify the cause for the latest outbreak. Preliminary test results at 11 buildings prompted officials to order the building owners to remediate their cooling towers “based on preliminary results and out of an abundance of caution,” Barbot said.

Stay vigilant
Despite the health department’s statement that the investigation is reaching its end, residents and people employed in the area should remain cautious because the source has not been identified. In addition, an infected person might not have developed symptoms immediately because the disease’s incubation period can be up to two weeks.

While Legionnaires’ disease is not contagious, it can be treated with common antibiotics if caught early. Anyone with flu-like symptoms – such as cough, fever or difficulty breathing – should seek medical attention to be safe.

Watch for symptoms
Because symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease are so similar to those of other forms of pneumonia (lung infection) or influenza (flu), many cases go unreported. Statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that only about 20 percent (5,000) of the estimated 25,000 yearly cases in the United States are reported because of the disease’s nonspecific signs and symptoms.

About 10 percent of people infected with Legionella bacteria (Legionella pneumophila) will die from the infection.

Early symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease generally include:

  • severe headaches
  • fever (104 degrees or higher) and chills
  • muscle aches
  • suppressed appetite.

Symptoms, however, can worsen to include:

  • pleuritic chest pain (pain caused by inflamed lungs)
  • dyspnea (difficulty breathing)
  • cough, which can produce blood and mucus
  • gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting (about one-third of Legionnaires cases produce these symptoms)
  • mental agitation and confusion.

More on Legionnaires

Legionnaires’ disease is a bacterial infection that is also known as legionellosis and Legionella pneumonia. It is treatable with antibiotics, although if it is not diagnosed early, it can lead to severe complications and even can become deadly.

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.

Legionella sources
Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks and clusters have been linked to a number of sources, including:

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

High-risk categories
Anyone can become ill from Legionella, but those most susceptible to infection include:

  • people 50 years of age or older
  • smokers, both 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).