By Michelle Karim and Christopher Leelum
Two water cooling towers in Smithtown East and West high schools were deactivated and cleaned after Legionella bacteria, which causes Legionnaires’ disease, was found in them last week.
“Upon notification of the sampling results, the cooling towers were immediately brought offline and … an online disinfection/decontamination of the cooling towers was performed by a professional licensed commercial pesticide applicator,” Superintendent Dr. James Grossane said in a letter to parents of students at Smithtown East and West.
Since July of this year, an outbreak in South Bronx has led to the deaths of 12 people. “[Legionella] is often isolated from water and wet areas in the natural environment such as creeks, hot tubs or hot springs, seawater, wood chips, mulch and soil. The bacterium is also present in cooling water systems,” Maurizio Del Poeta, a professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology said.
“There is a greater risk of severe disease in persons aged 50 years and over, regular smokers, and immunosuppressed persons,” Professor Del Poeta said. “Legionnaires’ disease does not affect children,” he added.
The letter confirmed that there have been no confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease at either high school, and that “follow-up monitoring” will be performed to prevent future outbreaks.
According to the Center for Disease Control, the symptoms for the disease begin two to 10 days after exposure to the bacteria, but could appear within the first two weeks.
“There are two symptoms of Legionella, one is called walking pneumonia. It’s one of those that you have but don’t know it yet,” Yolinda Huang, a senior Clinical Laboratory Science major said. She spends her time in the lab researching preventative methods of combatting diseases and studying different strains of microorganisms. “The other strain is the one which has an 80 to 90 percent mortality rate. This is the one people are scared about in the Bronx and what caused all those deaths,” she added.
“What surprised me most about the situation in the Bronx, and throughout the rest of the boroughs, was how many companies took advantage of the situation,” Peter LaRocco, an apprentice for New Tech Mechanical, a Long Island heating and air conditioning company, said. LaRocco explained how HVAC companies would charge “four to five times the amount they normally would” for inspection purposes, after Mayor De Blasio required all building and company owners to issue inspection of their cooling towers.
“What was originally an $800(ish) inspection, became a $4500-$5k inspection,” LaRocca said, in an email interview. “And when the fines by the city for not getting a cooling tower inspected could cost in between $10,000 – $20,000, getting up-charged 4 to 5 times the amount you normally would for a cooling tower inspection really isn’t that bad,” he added.
Initially, LaRocco thought that he had contracted the disease, after his doctors prescribed him antibiotics when they learned he works in HVAC.
“When we had the outbreak this summer, I was presenting most of the symptoms that qualified me for pneumonia. I thankfully didn’t have it, but was out of work for three days,” he said.