Elliot Olsen has regained millions of dollars for people harmed by Legionnaires’ disease. If you or a family member contracted Legionnaires in this Chemung County outbreak, please call Elliot at (612) 337-6126 for a free consultation.

Health departments have identified one of the sources in a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak that sickened 13 people in Chemung County in southern New York, near the Pennsylvania border.

Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, was found in testing samples from a cooling tower at Elmira Heat Treating Inc. in Elmira that infected four of the 13 sickened. The announcement was made by the New York State Department of Health (NYS DOH), working collaboratively with the Chemung County Health Department (CCHD).

WNEY News reported that of the 13 victims, nine were part of the same cluster, and four were separate cases, including one that was confirmed at the Chemung County Nursing Facility. All of those sickened are recovering, according to the CCHD, although the department did not say whether any of the patients required hospitalization.

Chemung County outbreak: Cluster? Outbreak?

The term “cluster” is used if multiple cases of Legionnaires’ disease are 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 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.” This is why this cluster can now be categorized as an outbreak.

Chemung County outbreak: specimens matched

Testing at the NYS DOH’s Wadsworth Center discovered the Legionella specimens from Elmira Heat Treating’s cooling towers were a molecular match to the bacteria found in samples of four of the 13 patients diagnosed in the outbreak. All four were reported to live in the same Elmira neighborhood.

State and county health departments collected samples in the homes of those sickened and from cooling towers in proximity to determine whether there was a common point of exposure.

The inspection revealed that one of Elmira Heat Treating’s three cooling towers has a history of bacterial growth. Still, testing of that tower earlier in the year was within “state acceptable levels” for Legionella. It was not confirmed whether that tower was the same one that tested positive.

The tower infected with the Legionella was taken offline and underwent remediation efforts, including deep cleaning and decontamination.

Elmira Heat Treating Inc. (407 South Kinyon Street) provides heat-treating and metallurgical consulting services.

Chemung County outbreak: towers a usual suspect

Cooling towers are a common culprit in Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks because they contain large amounts of water and are potential breeding grounds for Legionella, if they are not properly disinfected and maintained. Water within cooling towers is heated via heat exchange, which creates an ideal environment for heat-loving Legionella to multiply.

As the cooling tower moves air through a recirculated water system, it releases a “considerable amount of water vapor” into the atmosphere, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). If that water vapor contains Legionella, people can develop Legionnaires’ disease, which is contracted when people inhale microscopic aerosolized water droplets (vapor or mist).

Chemung County outbreak: oversight needed

Hospitals and nursing homes are required to bolster oversight of building water systems and medical equipment that could expose patients to harmful Legionella, but there is little regulatory oversight of apartments, hotels, and other non-medical buildings, such as Elmira Heat Treating.

“There’s not a lot of people checking up on a hotel, a condominium or a large building,” said Elliot Olsen, who has filed Legionnaires lawsuits on behalf of patients and their families for more than two decades. “I am not aware of any oversight really at any level.”

Chemung County outbreak: disease symptoms

Legionnaires’ disease is a severe type of pneumonia or 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 in the United States every year. However, because of the disease’s nonspecific signs and symptoms, only 5,000 cases are reported.

Legionnaires – also known as legionellosis or Legionella pneumonia – usually develops two to 10 days after exposure to Legionella. It frequently begins with the following symptoms:

  • headache
  • muscle pain
  • chills
  • fever, which can be 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

By the second or third day, other symptoms generally develop, including:

  • cough, which can bring up mucus and sometimes blood
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • 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.

A mild form of Legionnaires’ disease — known as Pontiac fever — can produce similar symptoms, such as fever, chills, headaches, and muscle aches. Pontiac fever, however, doesn’t infect the lungs.