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Engineers' building code standards target Legionella bacteria

| Saturday, March 9, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

An engineering group that influences building codes nationwide is drafting tough new standards to prevent Legionella, the waterborne bacteria blamed in a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak in Pittsburgh.

Federal estimates show Legionnaires', a form of pneumonia, kills more than 4,000 people and sickens some 21,000 others each year, three decades after researchers figured out how to control the bacteria in tap water.

The proposed standards would require building operators to verify they are monitoring the Legionella threat in commercial, residential and medical facilities with established risk factors, such as multiple whirlpools and spas. It also outlines methods to prevent the growth of the bacteria.

The cost of implementing these standards is unknown. Single-family homes would not be included in the proposed changes.

“It's not the science or the engineering lacking here. It's the lack of a management system that can be applied in a practical and defensible way,” said William McCoy, Standards Committee chairman at the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers in Atlanta.

McCoy's international committee, part of the 55,000-member engineering society, worked for the past six years to craft the first unified and enforceable domestic rules for Legionella control in the plumbing of large buildings, where the bacteria can fester and grow. The proposed plan could be voted on by the society's board this year.

The International Code Council in Washington generally adopts ASHRAE recommendations in building code guidelines that are used by state and local code enforcement agencies across the country.

Current ICC recommendations do not mention Legionnaires' disease, spokesman Steve Daggers said. The little-known council drew national attention in 2008 for advocating stringent fire sprinkler standards for single-family homes that met with heavy resistance from builders and consumers.

ASHRAE will not perform a cost-benefit analysis for the proposed Legionella standards as that is not part of its process, McCoy said. The ICC has in some instances, such as the residential sprinklers proposal, produced cost estimates.

The Uniform Construction Code Review and Advisory Council that sets Pennsylvania's building codes will next update its standards for 2015, said Lindsay Bracale, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor and Industry, which administers those codes.

The department did not respond to other written questions from the Tribune-Review.

“We believe it would be beneficial to all state health departments ... to have a national standard practice” to contain Legionella, said state Department of Health spokeswoman Holli Senior.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, whose experts have contributed to the draft proposal, will encourage building operators to adopt the Legionella standard, said CDC epidemiologist Lauri Hicks.

“We think it will help facilities identify the different steps they can take to prevent Legionella growth in the environment,” said Hicks, who helped investigate the recent Legionnaires' outbreak in the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

Legionella-contaminated tap water killed five and sickened as many as 21 veterans in the Oakland and O'Hara VA facilities between January 2011 and November 2012, the CDC found.

A cross-section of industry groups, public health departments and other government agencies created more than a dozen guidelines to contain Legionella over the past three decades.

ASHRAE committee member Janet Stout, a microbiologist who formerly worked for the Pittsburgh VA, said it was “way past time for the United States” to have a single, uniform Legionella standard.

France, England and other industrialized nations have “been far ahead of the United States in having an industry or governmental standard in dealing with Legionella in building water systems,” said Stout, now director of the private Special Pathogens Laboratory, Uptown.

McCoy said hundreds of facilities, including hospitals, have begun adopting the proposed standard voluntarily. Health systems, including UPMC and West Penn Allegheny, have said they follow established methods for controlling Legionella bacteria.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He canbe reached at 412-380-5676or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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