HARRISBURG, PA — Legionnaires’ disease is on the rise across the country but especially in Pennsylvania, with the commonwealth showing some of the highest rates of infection and illness year after year, according to state and federal data.
Yet, despite the very real public health risk, Pennsylvania has no comprehensive plan or requirements for managing or testing for this deadly disease.
To remedy this oversight, state Sens. Wayne Fontana (D-42) and Joe Pittman (R-41) of Friday introduced bipartisan legislation SB 1125 that would help to raise awareness about the disease while putting in place sound prevention and mitigation strategies.
“Even as Pennsylvania continues to recover from the health-care crisis caused by COVID-19, another public health risk is still looming. We shouldn’t wait for another serious outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease before we act. We know what needs to be done,” said Fontana of Allegheny County.
“Legionnaires’ disease is highly preventable, unlike the coronavirus, but it requires us to identify specific risks and then implement effective control measures — something that isn’t happening right now but should be.”
Legionella pneumophila bacteria, the pathogen that causes Legionnaires’ disease, are found naturally in freshwater environments, including waters used as a source by public drinking water systems. The bacteria grow in stagnant water or poorly treated building water systems, and eventually spread via mists.
The legislation that Fontana and Pittman introduced would direct both public drinking water providers and certain building owners to assess their respective water systems for risk and adopt simple mitigation measures such as flushing clean water through the system, keeping hot and cold water at appropriate temperatures, and monitoring the system regularly.
The bill would codify the seven-step industry standard, ASHRAE-188, which is backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S Veterans Administration (VA), and many other industry and professional organizations. ASHRAE-188 is currently only voluntary and not widely adopted.
Pittman joined in on collaborating with Fontana after the Senate Democrats held a hearing on Legionella, at the request of Fontana, on May 5, 2021. Expert panelists testified that the risk of Legionnaires’ disease would rise as buildings that were shut down during the pandemic began to reopen and without checking the quality of the water inside.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health issued its own advisory on June 28, 2021, warning about the potential risk of Legionnaires’ disease.
Pennsylvania had exceptionally high case counts in 2017, 2018, and 2019, according to the department, although the number of cases has been low since COVID-19 arrived, largely because mask wearing protects individuals from both Legionnaires’ disease and COVID-19. As fewer people wear masks, cases could spike again.
Many experts believe Legionnaires’ disease cases are going undetected because both Legionnaires’ disease and COVID-19 are a severe pneumonia. A recent study by the National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine estimates that the true number of Legionnaires’ disease cases may be 10 times higher than what is currently reported.
Like COVID, Legionnaires’ disease can impact anyone, but especially those with compromised respiratory systems, meaning the 1.3 million Pennsylvanians who have contracted and then recovered from COVID now are at heightened risk.