It took the largest and deadliest outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in New York City history to spur officials to target the cooling towers spreading the lethal bacteria.
In the South Bronx, where seven people died and 79 more were sickened in the past three weeks, residents had just one question Tuesday: What took so long?
As the number of confirmed neighborhood cases swelled again, Mayor de Blasio announced new legislation — after decades of neglect — to identify and inspect all buildings fitted with the large units.
Mayor de Blasio speaks about the death toll from the Bronx’s outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease Tuesday at Lincoln Hospital. Seven New Yorkers have died from the severe form of pneumonia and 86 cases of the disease have been confirmed in the South Bronx.
How many cooling towers? It’s probably in the tens of thousands. City officials just don’t know.
“What we need and what the legislation will achieve is a complete registry of every single building that has (a cooling tower),” the mayor said. “That does not exist as a matter of law right now.”
Once the list of buildings with cooling towers is assembled, the city will conduct regular inspections and impose penalties for those that fail to meet standards, the mayor said.
The proposed laws will be introduced to the City Council this week. The city tested 17 towers in the South Bronx outbreak area last month, with five testing positive for the Legionella bacteria.
“This is the largest outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that we are aware of in New York City,” Health Commissioner Mary Bassett said.
While the city has no mechanism for policing the cooling towers, the Health Department does monitor the painting of water towers, the attire of city-licensed barbers and the keeping of squirrels as pets. Ferrets? Still banned by the Health Department. The city also fines dog owners who don’t curb their pets.
But there’s been no regulation at all for cooling towers that can kill you.
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. noted it took seven dead bodies for officials to address a problem that has grown steadily since 2002 — and most often affects the city’s poorest residents.
“It is the responsibility of government to protect the health and well-being of the public, and this common-sense proposal will do just that,” Diaz said. “An appropriate inspection mechanism could have saved lives.”
Neighborhood residents, while praising the city for taking action, wondered why nothing happened sooner.
“The health (commissioner) of the City of New York needs to step up her game,” said Alexander Freeman, 57, a cook at the East Side House Settlement. “I’m still afraid that it might come down here.
“Everybody is nervous. How would you feel if this was your backyard?”
Sherry Flu, 50, said the proposed new laws were a step in the right direction after too much foot-dragging.
“I think something should’ve been done years ago,” the Bronx resident said. “You see the towers, and they’re just sitting there. You’re thinking, ‘Do they need to be taken down? Do we need to wear masks?’”
In other developments Tuesday:
City officials confirmed they had not asked for help from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While Bassett has spoken with CDC Director Tom Frieden, the city opted to stick with its own experts.
“We have an extraordinarily strong infectious disease unit here in New York City which includes people who are assigned to us by the CDC,” she said.
One of the locations that has been identified with the Legionnaires disease is the Opera House Hotel on E. 149th St.
Richard Harbus for New York Daily News
Legionnaires’ disease was also found at Concourse Plaza at 214 E. 161st St.
Richard Harbus for New York Daily News
Legionnaires’ disease has been confirmed at Streamline Plastics Co., in the Bronx.
A Brooklyn man was diagnosed with Legionnaires’ last month after four days at Lutheran Medical Center with a 104-degree temperature. The 31-year-old roofer “literally almost died,” his relative Janice Torres, 33, told the Daily News.
“On Saturday, (the city) called him and asked him if he had been in the Bronx,” said Torres. “He doesn’t even have friends who live in the Bronx.”
Officials had no estimate of the number of buildings fitted with cooling towers, even though the city has required owners to secure permits before installing them. One expert said virtually every large building in the city had one on their roof. There are about 2.5 million cooling towers nationwide.
The most recent CDC report from 2011 shows New York with a rate of Legionnaires’ disease nearly double the national average. The number of cases in New York increased by 230% between 2002-09, according to the agency.
The cause of the ailment is the use of cooling towers that can release a mist contaminated with the Legionella bacteria.
“Legionnaire’s has been a persistent health problem for years,” said de Blasio. “For far too long, the risk of Legionnaires’ was underestimated.”
City officials released a chart indicating the first new case of the potentially lethal disease was recorded July 12, with new victims arriving every day but one over the next three weeks.
The largest total of victims reported in a single day was 13 on July 30, authorities said.
“The number of cases has been slowly reducing,” said the mayor, noting that the maximum incubation period for the bacteria is 10 days.
The seven people killed by the bacteria were all elderly and battling unrelated health problems when infected, officials said.
The death toll topped a 2006 outbreak, also in the Bronx, where six people died in Parkchester.
People contract Legionnaires’ disease when they inhale the mist from cooling towers contaminated with bacteria.
The cause of the potentially deadly ailment is the use of cooling towers that release a bacteria-contaminated warm mist into the air. The victims then inhale the tainted mist before it disperses.
The most recent outbreak prior to the current stretch came with nine Legionnaires’ cases reported in Flushing, Queens, in May. A cooling tower at a New York City Housing Authority senior center was to blame, according to health officials. In January, eight more people were infected at Co-op City in the Bronx. None of those victims died.
Commissioner Bassett said there are between 200 and 300 reported cases in the city each year, with individuals sickened by the bacteria in all five boroughs.
There have been 2,400 reported cases of Legionnaires’ disease nationally this year. The ailment is typically treated with antibiotics.
De Blasio, joined by the heads of the city Health and Buildings departments, said several people are being treated at Lincoln Hospital.
Victims of the disease suffer from a variety of symptoms, including shortness of breath, high fever, muscle aches, headaches and coughing.
De Blasio said new legislation was coming later this week requiring the owners of buildings with cooling towers to conduct regular inspections for the bacteria.
Lohre Flick Roberts, the former president of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, said the cooling towers are typically disinfected once a month.
“The system needs to be flushed to kill anything living,” Roberts told The News.
The proposed legislation would require the owners of buildings with the cooling towers to report their presence to the city.
Regular city inspections for the bacteria would follow. If Legionella is found, the owners would be responsible for cleanup at the site.
But the city could create a huge amount of new work with the new laws. Experts wondered whether it was the most cost-effective way to tackle the problem.
“There are many different filtration systems, including sand and bag filters,” Roberts said. “The reason for the filter is to catch small-sized particles. Some of that is bacteria.”
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