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REPORT: Quincy made changes in water treatment prior to Legionnaires’ outbreak

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EDITOR'S NOTE: In a previous version of this story, Quincy Utilities Director Jeffrey Conte claimed the city did not switch disinfectants in 2014. He later clarified that that statement was not true, and the city did switch disinfectants in October 2014.

QUINCY (WGEM) -- Researchers at Virginia Tech have published a report stating that in 2015 the City of Quincy had made major changes to its water treatment process in the months prior to the Legionnaires’ outbreak at the Quincy Veterans' Home.

The report states that in December 2014, the city of Quincy temporarily switched from chlorine to chloramine as a disinfectant for the water supply.

The report shows that although the changes the city made did not violate any laws, the amount of disinfectant in Quincy’s water was reduced by half because of the change.

Perhaps compounding the issue, the report also points to a record 100-year storm on July 13 that filled the Quincy system with storm and runoff water a week prior to the outbreak at the Vets' Home.

The researchers stated, "we hypothesize that the decrease in disinfectant residuals in the distribution systems contributed to conditions that support Legionella growth in buildings, especially in locations where there were other significant water system deficiencies."

Quincy's Director of Utilities Jeffrey Conte said the city switched from chloramines to chlorine in October 2014 to help treat the water during the winter. He said there was a concern the chloramine wouldn't properly kill pathogens in the water at low temperatures, a change he said was approved by the EPA.

Conte said that the city switched back to chloramine in the summer, a move that the EPA approved in the fall.

"In October of 2015, we applied for the change to switch from chloramine to chlorine." Conte said. "There's a lot of complicated factors, but basically we switched to chlorine because it is a better disinfectant, we have made some improvements to the treatment plant that will allow us to switch to that better disinfectant without infecting other water quality parameters."

The report also goes on to show that 6 months after switching to the chloramine disinfectant, the city of Quincy also stopped adding chemicals designed to prevent corrosion in pipes.

According to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health included in the report, the month after the change, the blood lead levels in Quincy children spiked.

The report shows that in November 2015 the city of Quincy returned to using chlorine and in February 2016 they added back in phosphate to prevent pipe corrosion.

The report also compares the incident in Quincy to the Flint, Michigan, water crisis; however, the researchers note that there was no legal violation in Quincy or public acknowledgement of a health risk.

The researchers state "this study supports the critical need for improved data collection during changes in municipal water treatment."

The Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs' told WGEM News that they have seen the Virginia Tech report and have no comment on how the city of Quincy maintains its water supply.

The Legionnaires' outbreak at the Quincy Vets' Home led to the death of 14 residents and sickened at least 60 others.

Since then, state officials have put $230 million towards a new facility with proper plumbing to prevent the disease. However some say changes at the Vets' Home are not enough, the city must make changes too.

In February, Conte denied any responsibility by the city on the Vets' Home outbreak.

In response to a call from the Alliance to Prevent Legionnaires' Disease for the city to make changes in the drinking water system, Conte said, "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."

Conte added, "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."

You can find the report here.

Preventing Legionnaires’ Disease: A focus on water quality, distribution
Legionnaires Vets' Home coverage

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