Cooling tower eyed in Legionnaires’ outbreak in Manhattan

By Carl Campanile

A cooling tower at the same housing complex in Washington Heights has been identified as the likely source of two Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks within a few months, city Health Department officials said Friday.

The culprit is the Sugar Hill Project at 898 St. Nicholas Avenue and 155th Street.

Officials said the cooling tower at the complex tested for Legionella bacteria following an outbreak in the neighborhood in October as well as in July.

“After a comprehensive investigation, the Health Department has identified the cooling tower at the Sugar Hill Project as the likely source of this cluster,” said Acting Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot.

“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. “

Barbot said the the Sugar Hill project turned its cooling tower off on October 18 to stem the health crisis, including disassembling components, and it remains turned off.

“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 commissioner said.

Thirty two people were sickened with Legionnaires’ Disease last month. Thirty patients were hospitalized and one died.

Legionnaires’ disease is a type of pneumonia that is caused by the bacteria Legionella, which grows in warm water. Symptoms resemble other types of pneumonia and can include fever, chills, muscle aches and cough.

Most cases of Legionnaires’ disease can be traced to plumbing systems where conditions are favorable for Legionella growth, such as cooling towers like Sugar Hill, whirlpool spas, hot tubs, humidifiers, hot water tanks and condensers for large air-conditioning systems.

The Health Department said it had been closely monitoring the Sugar Hill Project since the first Legionnaires’ disease cluster hit the same area of north Manhattan on July 11.

The same cooling tower at Sugar was “remediated” following the first Legionella outbreak on July 11, health officials said.

But Councilman Member Mark Levine, who represents the area and also chairs the Council Health Committee, complained that the Health Department dropped the ball.

“DOHMH needs to move immediately to put in place better protocols to prevent this kind of repeat contamination,” Levine said in a statement.

“From the moment we learned of a second Legionnaires cluster at the same location in upper Manhattan, I began asking pressing questions: are there defects in cooling tower equipment which make them vulnerable to repeat contamination? How long does intense monitoring last after a tower is found to be contaminated once? Five weeks–and one oversight hearing–after lower Washington Heights was hit with a second deadly cluster, we still don’t have adequate answers to these questions,” added Levine.

It’s the first time that one city cooling tower in one complex has been linked to two Legionnaires’ disease clusters, health officials said.

The Health Department said it will be tightening rules on cooling towers and examining the design of Sugar Hill and other cooling towers linked to Legionella cases to prevent outbreaks in the future.

The Sugar Hill project is a 13-story, 124-unit building that provides subsidized housing to low and moderate income families. Mayor de Blasio attended the ribbon cutting in 2014.

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