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Health Alert: Tests Show Elevated Legionella in Cooling Tower at the Tompkins County Mental Health Building

(Ithaca, N.Y., September 9, 2022) – The Tompkins County Health Department is alerting the community that a cooling tower located at the Tompkins County Mental Health building (201 East Green Street, Ithaca, New York), has shown elevated levels of Legionella (a type of bacteria). The cooling tower is part of a recirculated water system incorporated into the building's cooling, industrial, refrigeration or energy production system.

In New York State, all owners of cooling towers are required to test their towers routinely for Legionella to assess the effectiveness of routine disinfection and maintenance. Integrated Water Management (IWM), who is contracted to manage the tower at the Mental Health building, received sample results on September 1, 2022, showing the concentration of Legionella in the cooling tower was >1,500 colony forming units per milliliter (CFU/mL). In accordance with the New York State Department of Health’s (DOH) regulations, any result over 1000 CFU/mL requires public notification, review of cooling tower treatment protocols, and decontamination of the cooling tower.

As required by DOH, IWM performed decontamination of the cooling tower on September 8, 2022, notified Tompkins County Environmental Health of the elevated levels, reviewed the cooling tower treatment protocol, and will retest the cooling tower within 3-7 days. If the results remain elevated, further disinfection or decontamination of the cooling tower will be required.

Legionella bacteria exist naturally in the environment and people often receive low-level exposure without contracting the disease. Regarding this particular incident, the risk to the public is low and Tompkins County Mental Health building will remain open during regular business hours.

Cooling towers can release Legionella into the air near the tower. This does not necessarily mean that people will be exposed to the bacteria or become ill. Exposure to Legionella may cause people to develop Legionellosis (also known as Legionnaires’ disease). If left untreated, this bacterial disease may cause pneumonia. People most at risk are those with a weakened immune system, current or former smokers, those with a chronic lung disease (like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) or emphysema), or those over 50 years old. 

Symptoms and Treatment

  • Symptoms can include cough, shortness of breath, high fever, muscle aches, and headaches. If you develop these symptoms, consult with your healthcare provider.
  • If left untreated, this bacteria disease may cause pneumonia.
  • The incubation period for Legionnaire’s disease ranges from two to ten days.
  • Most cases of illness associated with Legionella can be treated successfully with antibiotics.
  • Legionellosis has not been proven to be contagious from person to person, so quarantine or isolation of infected persons is not required.
  • People of any age can get Legionellosis, but the disease most often affects the elderly. People with underlying illnesses or with lowered immune system resistance to disease are also at higher risk. It rarely occurs in otherwise healthy people.

If you have any questions regarding this incident, please contact the Tompkins County Health Department at (607) 274-6600 for additional information. Learn more about online at: www.health.ny.gov/Legionella.

The Tompkins County Health Department is your partner for a healthy community. Find us online at TompkinsCountyNY.gov/health, and follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/TompkinsPublicHealth and on Twitter at @TompkinsHealth. Sign up to receive COVID-19 updates or other county announcements via email or text.

Media contact: Shannon Alvord, salvord@tompkins-co.org

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