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

Health officials in New Jersey are investigating a Legionnaires’ disease cluster in Union County that has claimed five lives since early March.

Officials have confirmed 22 cases of the deadly bacterial disease, including the five fatalities, and said the individuals, who live in or visited Union County, became ill between March 8 and May 13. The five people who died were described as “older adults” who had other “significant” health problems.

Exact statistics with a breakdown of ages, genders, and residences of the individuals infected was not released, although it was confirmed that a “vast majority” of those who fell ill live in Union County.

The New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local health departments to try and locate the source of the Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, which is a severe type of pneumonia (lung infection).

“We haven’t identified a confirmed source,” a NJDOH spokesperson told “We’re still re-interviewing the individuals who got sick. It’s a complex investigation.”

The state is conducting epidemiologic and environmental investigations, and some potential sources have been identified, but officials are not naming those sources. Remediation efforts have begun.

Why not an outbreak?
The term “cluster” is used if multiple cases of Legionnaires’ disease are merely linked in time and space but no common source is found. The term “outbreak” is used if a common source is found for the illnesses.

Additionally, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines an “outbreak” as the “occurrence of cases of disease in excess of what would normally be expected in a defined community, geographical area or season.”

Don’t assume you’re safe
“The risk to any resident of or recent visitor to Union County is very small,” Dr. Shefeer Elnahal, the state health commissioner, was quoted in a statement. “Out of an abundance of caution, the department recommends that individuals who live in Union County who become ill with pneumonia-like/respiratory symptoms – such as fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches, and headache – visit their health-care provider.”

Even recent visitors or individuals who travel through the Union County area who exhibit symptoms should seek medical attention to be safe.

Legionnaires’ disease usually develops two to 10 days after exposure to Legionella bacteria. It frequently begins with the aforementioned symptoms, but other signs you should be aware of include:

  • fatigue and unusual weakness.
  • gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • chest pain (called pleurisy)
  • confusion and other mental changes

Although Legionnaires’ disease primarily affects the lungs, it occasionally can cause infections in wounds and other parts of the body, including the heart. The disease is not contagious, meaning that it is not transferred through people-to-people contact.

Who is most at risk?
Anyone can get the disease, but those at the most significant risk of infection include:

  • people 50 or older
  • smokers (current or former)
  • heavy drinkers of alcoholic beverages
  • people with chronic lung disease
  • people with weakened immune systems.

After Legionnaires’ disease has been diagnosed, hospitalization is often necessary. In the most severe cases, complications can occur, including:

  • respiratory failure: caused by changes to the lung tissue, or oxygen loss in arteries supplying the lungs.
  • septic shock: this can occur when Legionella produce toxins that enter the blood stream and cause a drop in blood pressure, leading to the loss of adequate blood supply to the organs.
  • kidney failure: those same Legionella toxins can damage the kidneys’ ability to eliminate waste from the blood, resulting in kidney failure.
  • endocarditis: an infection of the inner lining of the heart that can affect the strength of the heart to maintain adequate blood flow through the body.
  • pericarditis: swelling of the pericardium, which is the primary membrane around the heart. This can also affect the ability of the heart to circulate blood throughout the body.

How is it contracted?
According to CDC, an estimated 25,000 cases of pneumonia due to Legionella bacteria (Legionella pneumophila) occur in the United States every year. However, only 5,000 cases are reported because of its nonspecific symptoms.

Legionella are contracted by inhaling microscopic water droplets in the form of mist or vapor. The bacteria, which thrive in warm water, are found primarily in human-made environments, such as:

  • air-conditioning system cooling towers
  • large plumbing systems
  • water systems of large buildings (hospitals, nursing homes, hotels, etc.)
  • hot-water heaters and tanks
  • bathroom showers and faucets
  • swimming pools
  • whirlpools and hot tubs
  • physical-therapy equipment
  • mist machines and hand-held sprayers
  • decorative fountains.

Individuals in Union County, especially those living or working in buildings with cooling towers or large plumbing systems, should exercise these extra precautions until a Legionella source has been identified:

  • Consider taking a bath instead of a shower, since a shower could create a water mist. Try to minimize your time in the bathroom while the tub is filling.
  • It is fine to brush your teeth, wash your hands, or wash dishes, but fill the sink slowly to avoid creating a mist.
  • It is fine to drink cold water from the tap, but start with cold water when heating water for tea, coffee, or cooking. You cannot get Legionnaires’ disease by drinking water.

Persistent problem for NJ
State officials report that there are between 250 and 350 Legionnaires cases in New Jersey every year. The CDC’s 2014-2015 Legionnaires’ Disease Surveillance Summary Report showed New Jersey ranked in the Top 10 for states in the number of “reported confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease.”

Earlier this month, it was announced that New Jersey health officials were investigating an outbreak in which three residents of a Newark senior apartment complex (Nevada Street Apartments) were sickened.

Last summer, after a West Orange municipal worker was diagnosed with Legionnaires, six of the city’s municipal buildings tested positive for elevated levels of Legionella. A few months later, nine of the city’s 12 schools tested positive.