Up in Arms: Legionella Found in Unlikely Places

In 1976, Legionnaires at the Pennsylvania America Legion convention in Philadelphia started to get sick. At first, symptoms seemed identical to those of a typical pneumonia-based lung infection but the disease spread rapidly; over 200 people became ill and several died.

iStock_000043111880SmallThe outbreak prompted the discovery of Legionella, a water-loving and lung-hating bacteria. Mist from contaminated water – possible when showering, using hot tubs or even after prolonged exposure to air conditioning – causes this infection, which results in high fever, hacking cough and muscle aches.

Now, researchers have discovered an unlikely hiding place for legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires disease: windshield washer fluid.

Vehicular Infection?

Keep kids away from the washer fluid.

We’ve all heard the horror stories of young children mistaking the brightly colored liquid for juice and taking a few sips – methanol, the active ingredient in many de-icing fluids, can cause blindness or death if even small amounts are swallowed.

But according to a recent Washington Post article, University of Arizona researcher Otto Schwake has discovered a new threat in your car’s windshield cleaning system: legionella.

Here’s how it works: in windshield washer fluid that doesn’t have added methanol, Legionella flourishes and can live for up to 14 months. Schwake tested washer fluid from school buses and found that several brands contained Legionella.

The problem?

When sprayed on a windshield the fluid creates a fine mist, easily inhaled by bus drivers or passengers. Sure, this seems a little off the beaten path but according to Schwake it exposes a critical fact: microbes are everywhere.

You Got it Where?

The vast majority of Legionnaires outbreaks happen at hospitals. With so many devices designed to move, mist and modify water, many medical institutions are now installing special filtration systems to limit the chances of infection.

But the obvious sources aren’t always the best predictors. In Britain, The Guardian reports that several home birthing pools have been recalled after a child born in one developed the disease.

And while windshield washer fluid spray in rush hour traffic or riding the bus could also carry the bacteria, consider the case of a Massachusetts woman whose ex-boyfriend broke into her home, damaged property and then dumped windshield washer fluid into her car.

Right now he’s charged with breaking and entering along with property damage, but could a case of Legionnaires up the ante to assault?

Windshield washer fluid will never be the leading cause of Legionnaires but it raises a critical point. Any system that handles liquid or air, including cooling towers, requires regular screening, cleaning and maintenance to ensure both obvious and unexpected threats are eliminated.

We’d like  to recommend that all facility managers take a more serious stance on cleaning their cooling towers regularly.

You can read more about how to reduce legionella in cooling towers in our guide, “Are Your Cooling Towers Clean.”

Cooling tower maintenance is no longer the time- and labor-intensive chore it once was. Goodway changed that when we introduced our Cooling Tower Vacuum.

Cooling tower maintenance used to require a complete shut-down, but with the Goodway Cooling Tower Vacuum there’s no need to drain the tower – you can clean it while the tower is still on line. Cooling demand is not interrupted, nor is the comfort of occupants.

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