By Jessie Williams
The Tennessee Department of Health sent out a letter to the City of Red Boiling Springs on February 14, 2017 concerning a growing number of Legionella cases in the community.
According to TDOF representative for the Upper Cumberland area Debbie Hoy, there was a total of four confirmed cases of Legionella, or Legionnaires’ Disease, in RBS in 2016 - including at least one death.
Legionella, an organism that grows and persists in water/wet environments, is not spread person-to-person, but is instead contracted when a person breathes in a mist (aerosolized water) that is contaminated with the bacteria. The contamination can be present in hot tubs/pools, misting machines, water systems, humidifiers, water cooling towers, or even decorative water fountains.
Legionnaires is an often lethal disease that’s similar to a case of severe pneumonia with symptoms including cough, shortness of breath, fever, muscle aches and headaches. It can also cause diarrhea, nausea and confusion. Each year, an estimated 56,000 to 113,000 people are infected with the Legionella bacteria in the United States.
Hoy says the TDOH has been working with the City of RBS to locate the source(s) but as of now, it has not been identified.
“We have notified all local physicians and the local hospital so they know what to test for in the event someone has symptoms,” said Hoy. “Legionella is very treatable with antibiotics if it’s identified quickly.”
The incubation period for Legionella is around 14 days and, according to Hoy, the last known case in RBS was identified in December of 2016.
“We start out trying to identify the source by distributing a questionnaire prepared by the Center for Disease Control to those infected and their relatives, to find out about their routines, and the places they have been, to see where they could have had exposure,” she explained.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation recently performed tests on Red Boiling Springs water system, and released the following statement to the Chronicle, regarding their results:
“TDEC’s Division of Water Resources has made a recent site visit to the utility. Our staff did not find any irregularities and chlorine residual tests were conducted. Results showed residuals at 2.1-2.5 ppm, which is within an acceptable range.”
While Hoy admits it’s discouraging that they have not been able to locate the source of the organism, she says they will remain diligent in their investigation.
“We are continuing to investigate, but we may also never find out where it was contracted,” Hoy said. “It is encouraging, however, that there haven’t been any cases since December, because it could mean the source has been cleared of the bacteria. Without knowing the source, it’s still important that all water you come in contact with is properly chlorinated, including your personal humidifiers.”
Deputy State Epidemiologist John Dunn, DVM, Ph.D, released this statement concerning the status of the investigation:
“All of the cases (in RBS) have been investigated by the regional office, but no common exposures have been detected. We are monitoring for additional cases, but have not seen any since December. Broad education was provided in the community regarding CDC guidelines for water systems and legionella to facilities identified with cooling towers or other prominent water features. None of the facilities are currently linked to all four cases. Surveillance is ongoing.”
The first cases of Legionella were detected in the 70’s when numerous people contracted the disease during an American Legion Convention - hence the name. The AC unit of the venue was found to be the source of the contamination.
If you develop any of the symptoms associated with Legionnaire’s Disease, it’s important to see a doctor right away.