Legionnaires’ outbreak ‘separate and completely’ different from city’s water woes, Newark mayor says

Posted May 8, 2019

The recent Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at a senior citizen building in Newark is “separate and completely” independent from the city’s troubles with its drinking water, Mayor Ras Baraka said Tuesday adding that the city continues to investigate the source of the bacteria that sickened three individuals.

“It is not given to people through drinking water, not given to people through taking baths. Those are two separate and completely different issues,” Baraka said of the disease during a press conference regarding the city’s effort to remediate elevated lead levels in the drinking water.

“Legionnaires would not be a problem as it relates to the water source, it would be a problem that occurred in a specific building once it gets into the water system in that building,” Baraka added.

Legionnaires’ disease is a type of pneumonia caused by the Legionella bacteria, commonly found in water or soil. People are infected when they inhale water droplets coming from reheated water that causes the bacteria to multiply.

One Newark resident was infected in December and two others fell ill last month. All three live at 2 Nevada Street. City officials previously said they were testing the building’s water system Monday to find the cause but said it wasn’t clear if they were all infected inside the apartment complex. Results from the tests are expected back in three weeks.

Erik Olson, a drinking water expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is suing Newark over its handling of elevated lead levels in the water, said poorly operated water distribution systems can introduce the bacteria into buildings.

“We’ve seen in other cases that a poorly maintained distributed system can be linked to Legionella being found in the (distribution) system,” he said. “Often what we see is that tap water introduces Legionella into the buildings and the buildings have to have internal plumbing maintained to keep the Legionella from multiplying.”

Flint, Michigan, which grappled with lead and other metals in its drinking water when officials switched the city’s source water, also had a Legionnaires outbreak that eventually claimed the lives of 12 people. Scientists eventually linked the outbreak to low levels of chlorine in the municipal water system, according to media reports.

Baraka said “there was no evidence” Newark’s outbreak was related to low chlorine levels.

Newark, however, recorded two turbidity violations in November and December last year. Though not a serious violation, too much turbidity in the water can slow down the disinfection process and allow more bacteria through.

Olson said turbidity can interfere with the effectiveness of chlorine. That combined with crud build-up in an aging pipe infrastructure could be allowing Legionella to multiply, he added.

Jerry Notte, the licensed operator for the Pequannock water treatment plant, said the city’s turbidity violations have been remediated and the system is back in compliance. He added that treatment facilities also have to meet certain chlorine contact time requirements that mandate a certain amount of chlorine for a specific amount of time to properly disinfect the water.

Chlorine quickly kills Legionella bacteria, he emphasized, adding that Newark has recently been in compliance with required chlorine contact time.

Though federal and state standards mandate monitoring for different kinds of bacteria and pathogens, Legionella is not one of them, said New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe.

McCabe said she was not aware of outbreak in Newark but would look into the potential cause.

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