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Preventing Legionnaires’ Disease: A focus on water quality, distribution

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Springfield, IL - Several Illinois lawmakers have introduced plans that could help lower the spread of Legionella bacteria. The Alliance to Prevent Legionnaires' Disease (APLD) says the state needs comprehensive solutions. APLD members say the most important ways to prevent the disease from spreading are education, treating source water and better management of water distribution systems. These are all areas they hope the state will take action on.

Legionnaires' Disease came into the Illinois spotlight when an outbreak at the Quincy Veterans Home led to the death of 14 residents and sickened at least 60 others. State officials put $230 million towards a new facility with proper plumbing to prevent the disease. However, the Alliance says a new facility can't stop the disease alone.

Water in jeopardy

"Until the city of Quincy's drinking water system makes the required changes, not only is the new Quincy facility in jeopardy but the entire community drinking water system is also potentially a problem," said National Water Safety Expert Bob Bowcock.

The APLD member says Quincy officials are in the process of abandoning their surface water treatment plant in favor of ground water, in order to alleviate the threat of Legionella to the water system. Bowcock says the City already admitted the problem wasn't the retirement facility, but the community drinking water system in Quincy. He believes water at the new facility could also be contaminated if the system isn't changed.

"There's a complexity that makes it difficult at a policy level to actually really manage the issue effectively and not just be reactionary to outbreaks," said Brad Considine, APLD Strategic Initiatives Director.

Considine says residents and policymakers need to be educated about the best ways to bridge gaps across state agencies to solve what could be a deadly problem. He says water has a long journey before it gets to the tap; it's treated before being distributed through miles of piping. "How that's handled at the end all the way to those buildings is critically important," Considine stated.

The Alliance stresses that 96% of the cases of Legionnaires' are individual sporadic cases that people may not ever hear about. Bowcock explained the CDC found over 600 cases across Illinois in 2019, with less than 25 of those individuals associated with outbreaks. Several of the bills filed last week are ideas Bowcock feels are "common sense" for communities and their utility groups.

"I think if we went back and analyzed our plumbing codes and our community drinking water system regulations and just applied common sense to regulations that are already on the books, we would cure 99% of these problems," added Bowcock.

WGEM News spoke with Jeffrey Conte, Quincy Director of Utilities, concerning Bowcock's comments.

"I don't know where the gentleman ( Bowcock) got his information from, but it's clearly not the truth. We have had multiple tests run by the city, run by independent agencies, to look for legionella active in the water supply, and we've never found any active legionella. If the city had some responsibility, obviously we'd be working with the people at the Illinois Veterans' Home to take care of that, but it's just simply not true."

Jeffrey Conte, Quincy Director of Utilities

Conte said he has never talked with Bowcock.

Bills to watch

Senate Bill 3778 would amend the Environmental Protection Act to create on site Legionella control systems within the plumbing of buildings receiving water from a permitted water supply. Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-Chicago) notes the on site Legionella control systems mentioned in his plan would provide supplemental treatment, rather than primary treatment of the water. Cunningham's legislation would also require the EPA to propose permits for the installation and operation of the on site control systems.

A proposal from Assistant House Majority Leader Natalie Manley (D-Joliet) would create the Water Quality Assurance Act. This legislation would require healthcare facilities develop and implement water management programs with specific elements to control the growth and spread of opportunistic pathogens. Manley's proposal could also require facilities to perform remediation of identified pathogens and allow the Department of Public Health to inspect or investigate conditions under the Act.

Rep. Deb Conroy (D-Villa Park) is the lead sponsor of a bill that could better regulate water heater safety valves. Her plan would require manufacturers and suppliers of hot water tanks to attach or supply a temperature safety valve to prevent water over 120 degrees Fahrenheit from coming out of any faucet. Conroy's legislation would also amend the Illinois Plumbing License Law to recognize the addition of a temperature safety valve during insulation of hot water tanks. Finally, House Bill 5257 introduced by Rep Lamont Robinson (D-Chicago) would require hospitals and long-term care facilities to provide results of any testing for Legionnaires' Disease to the Department of Public Health.

Bowcock says lawmakers can pass new proposals, but nothing will change until individual communities take the water treatment process seriously.

Mike Miletich

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