When it comes to possible disease carriers, Verizon is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. But this week, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced the findings of a three-year investigation into cooling towers in statewide buildings. It didn’t look right to Verizon.
“Verizon did not maintain its cooling towers in New York City buildings, causing the towers to spread Legionnaire’s disease, a dangerous and lethal form of pneumonia,” James said. he said in a tweet.
The announcement of the findings, which revised Verizon’s cooling tower maintenance record from 2017, comes amid two new groups of legionnaire’s disease in the U.S., including an outbreak in the Bronx that has so far killed two people and has infected at least 24 more. The New York City Department of Health has now connected these cases to four specific cooling towers in the Highbridge area of the Bronx, where the growing bacterium was found. The Department of Health did not say who was in charge of monitoring the towers. The Covid-19 pandemic may have contributed to an increase in such outbreaks, as the unexpected closure of buildings may have facilitated the growth of bacteria in water and plumbing systems.
Cooling towers such as those used by Verizon are often placed on rooftops and are typically used to cool machinery, such as air conditioning systems and telecommunications equipment. There are many types of infrastructure like this that private companies install in densely populated areas and the surrounding area. Companies operating this type of equipment are supposed to follow best practices to ensure that their equipment does not become a security hazard. But when this infrastructure is not carefully maintained, and regulators do not detect violations, it can become dangerous and even cause public health problems.
Legionnaire’s disease, which is caused by the legionella bacterium, is just one of them. The disease got its name after an outbreak of the disease at a convention for the American Legion, a veterans’ organization, in 1976. Although it is often found in natural water sources, such as ponds, streams and lakes, this bacterium becomes problematic. when found in man-made water systems, such as hot tubs, sinks, and plumbing.
Once the bacterium begins to grow inside these accessories, it can spread through small drops of water that, if inhaled, can infect a person’s lungs and cause pneumonia. Legionnaires’ disease can usually be treated with antibiotics, and the symptoms of the disease are usually difficult to distinguish from other infections. The disease can be dangerous, however, for people with certain risk factors or conditions, including people over the age of 50 or people with cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says approximately one in 10 people who contract legionnaires’ disease die from complications. The disease is not transmitted from person to person.
This is where Verizon cooling towers come in. A cooling tower can spray the water it uses to cool your computer into the air. If this water contains legionella bacteria, this bacterium can also enter the air, where it can infect nearby people. These cooling towers are especially worrisome because they can operate at ideal temperatures for the growth of this bacterium, especially during the summer. These cooling towers are also ubiquitous, as they are used to cool everything from air cooling systems to machinery used for industrial processes and energy production.
“Electronic equipment emits a lot of heat and they have to keep it cool to work,” said Brian Labus, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Nevada’s Las Vegas School of Public Health. . “Every time you have computer systems, which is what these places have, a lot of heat is produced and [have] to get rid of heat; otherwise, they will melt your entire team. ”
Buildings and companies operating these cooling towers are supposed to take a number of steps to prevent bacteria from growing, including repeated monitoring of their equipment to detect possible infections. New York, for example, passed state and local laws to regulate these towers more aggressively after 138 people were diagnosed and 16 people died from legionnaire’s disease during a 2015 outbreak in the Bronx.
Following the passage of these laws, the state attorney general’s office began investigating cooling tower owners to make sure they met New York requirements.
According to the Attorney General’s investigation, Verizon, which hires other companies to manage its towers, did not regularly inspect its cooling towers and did not disinfect these cooling towers effectively after the bacterium was discovered. In all, the company has accumulated at least 225 violations in about 45 different locations in New York. Now, Verizon has to pay a $ 118,000 fine and adopt several new procedures to make sure it keeps these towers safe. The company told Recode that it has not admitted any crime.
“Legionnaires’ disease remains a deadly presence in areas of our state, especially in low-income communities and communities of color,” James said in a statement Thursday. “It’s essential that companies like Verizon take the necessary action to prevent the spread of this preventable and lethal disease.”
Outbreaks of legionnaire’s disease remain a concern in the United States. In addition to the recent accumulation of cases in the Bronx, New Jersey health officials linked a group of legionnaire cases last month to a Hampton Inn, and in 2019, the Georgia Department of Health connected an outbreak that likely caused about 80 cases of the disease. the hotel’s cooling tower. Legionella bacteria have also repeatedly appeared in unexpected places, such as a beverage processing plant, hot water tanks used at a Ford manufacturing facility, a GlaxoSmithKline site, and a cooling tower used by Disneyland.
But inevitably, the results of the New York investigation serve as a warning to the many companies that build or use infrastructure in cities and towns across the country, especially those that depend on water to cool it.
“As a technology company, you probably don’t think about infecting someone with something [that’s] “It shows the importance of paying attention to your systems and providing the right levels of preventive maintenance and making sure you don’t get to the point where you can spread the disease to others.”