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Sugar Hill Project Confirmed Source for Both Washington Heights Legionnaires Disease Outbreaks

Posted in Legionnaire's disease,Outbreaks & Recalls on November 12, 2018

The New York City Department of Health confirms that the second outbreak of Legionnaires disease in Washington Heights is over. Here’s what you need to know about the Sugar Hill Project Legionnaires outbreak:

The health department confirmed that the source of both outbreaks is confirmed to be the cooling tower of the Sugar Hill Project, which also matched the strains of bacteria collected from ill people in the second outbreak. This is the first time one cooling tower has been linked to two outbreaks in New York City. According to the Acting Commissioner of the NYC Health Department Dr, Oxiris Barbot, “After a comprehensive investigation, the Health Department has identified the cooling tower at the Sugar Hill Project as the likely source of this cluster. Sampling conducted at the start of the investigation revealed that Legionella bacteria had returned quickly despite a comprehensive remediation, suggesting that there was potentially something unique in this cooling tower system. The Sugar Hill Project turned its cooling tower off on October 18 to take additional remedial measures, including addressing components that had to be disassembled. The tower remains off, and is under a Commissioner’s Order to remain shut off until Sugar Hill management demonstrates that it has remediated it and can operate the tower safely. When the cooling tower begins operation again, Sugar Hill management will be required to provide sample results on a weekly basis under a heightened monitoring and enforcement program.”

The NYC Health Department ordered the Broadway Housing Communities, the owner of the Sugar Hill Project, to remediate the cooling towers on October 4, 2018.

The Final Statistics

As of the end of this outbreak, there were 32 confirmed cases of Legionnaires disease and one death. Of those confirmed, 30 were hospitalized and 25 have been discharged form the hospital. Several ill persons remain hospitalized at this time. According to the health department’s announcement:

“The majority of the patients had risk factors for Legionnaires’ disease. The likely source of the cluster has been identified. After an extensive patient-focused investigation, sampling of cooling towers, and molecular analysis of Legionella bacteria from human and cooling tower specimens, the Health Department’s Public Health Laboratory has matched clinical specimens from patients associated with the October cluster and the environmental Legionella strain found in the cooling tower at the Sugar Hill Project, located at 898 St. Nicholas Avenue at West 155th Street.”

The Investigation of Two Outbreaks

The New York Health Department reported that it has been “closely monitoring the Sugar Hill Project since the first Legionnaires’ disease cluster in Lower Washington Heights began on July 11.” Allegedly, the cooling tower at issue had been remediated on July 13, 2018. But when a second outbreak was discovered, the NYC health department asked for more testing of Sugar Hill’s water towers. According to the health department’s announcement, “Despite a full cleaning and disinfection and consistent monitoring, samples taken from the Sugar Hill tower at the outset of the second investigation, and just prior to disinfection, showed high concentrations of Legionella. This led the Health Department to focus its investigation on the Sugar Hill tower.”

Preventing Future Legionnaires Outbreaks in Washington Heights

The New York City Health Department is moving forward to ensure outbreaks such as these do not happen again. The health department saud they have launched new computer systems, extended their sureileence, and worked diligently with building owners in 2017 to ensure cooling tower safety violations were addressed and remedied. In the wake of these outbreaks, the health department says they will be”

  • Examining the design of this specific cooling tower and other towers that have been identified as sources of Legionnaires’ disease clusters in the past.
  • Convening an expert panel of water system engineers to examine and provide recommendations on cooling tower water systems. This information will be used to advise building owners and cooling tower operators about the potential engineering designs associated with some cooling towers that may foster exponential Legionella 
  • Introducing enhanced cooling tower regulations to make the requirements more explicit, and enhance the regulatory oversight of these complex systems and management relationships. Some of these changes could include expanding qualification requirements for the “Responsible Person” and “Qualified Person” who are charged with maintaining the cooling tower system; clarifying definitions to specify that all parts of a cooling tower system must meet regulatory requirements; and adding details requiring that any cooling tower disinfection include all “wetted surfaces” in the cooling tower system.”

About Sugar Hill

Opened in 2015, Sugar Hill Project is a 191,500-square-foot, mixed-use development located in Manhattan’s historic Sugar Hill district of Harlem. According to its website: “The Sugar Hill Project, BHC’s most recent initiative, leverages the success of our integrated model which pairs permanent housing with early education and educational advocacy, and access to the arts. The 191,000sf mixed-use building designed by globally renowned architect David Adjaye is prominently located in Upper Manhattan’s Sugar Hill historic district on 155th Street, the crossroads of the traditionally African American neighborhood of Harlem and the immigrant, largely Latino communities of Washington Heights.”

About Legionnaires Disease

The risk of Legionnaires’ disease being spread by large-scale water systems cannot be completely eliminated. This is because the presence of the bacteria is common in fresh water. However, as it is only when these bacteria are overgrown that the disease becomes a problem, the risk for infection can be reduced by proper maintenance of the water features. Hot tubs should especially be maintained with the proper chlorine levels, as Legionella grow best in warm water.

Legionnaires disease is contracted when a person breathes in small contaminated droplets of water from the air that contains the harmful bacteria Legionella.  While it is not a very common mode of transmission, Legionnaires disease can be contracted by aspiration of contaminated drinking water.  This happens when water “goes down the wrong pipe,” where a person is drinking and the water enters the trachea or windpipe instead of going down the throat into the digestive tract.  Those with existing swallowing difficulties are more likely to be at risk for this method of transmission.  This disease is generally not spread from person to person except for very rare circumstances.

How Does Someone Get Sick from a Cooling Tower?

Good question! Here are some FAQs about Legionnaires disease and cooling towers:

What is a cooling tower?

A cooling tower is basically a heat rejection device that takes hot water out of systems (like an air conditioning unit), reduces the temperature of the water through direct contact between air and water via a specialized heat exchanger. It then, recycles cooled-off water back into the system.

How does a cooling tower spread the infection?

The major source of Legionella infection includes water distribution systems of any large building such as hotels or hospitals. Other sources include cooling towers, humidifiers, whirlpool spas, hot springs and mist machines. Air conditioners are not usually a source of Legionnaires disease.

Cooling towers and water heaters form an ideal condition to grow the bacteria?

The temperature of the water in most of the water systems are Legionella bacteria growth appropriate temperature i.e. around 68-122 degrees Fahrenheit. The cooling tower moves the air through its recirculated water systems and emits a considerable amount of water vapor into the atmosphere. When these vapors contain Legionella bacteria, which when inhaled by someone, they can get sick.

Studies have found Legionella to be present in 60-80% of cooling towers.

Our Lawyers Can Help You:

Several residents in the Washington Heights have retained The Lange Law Firm, PLLC in the Legionnaires outbreak.

Our lawyer, Jory Lange, is one of the nation’s leading Legionnaires disease lawyers and has helped families all across the nation. If you have developed Legionnaires disease, we want you to know that a Legionnaires lawyer at the Lange Law Firm, PLLC is currently investigating the matter and offering free legal consultations.

Get in touch with us by giving a call on 833.330.3663 or complete the form here.

By: Candess Zona-Mendola, Editor (Non-Lawyer)