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Legionnaires' case prompts testing of fountain at Point State Park

| Monday, July 1, 2013, 11:55 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
People enjoy a much needed break from rain showers as they pass by the fountain at Point State Park, Downtown on Monday, July 1, 2013.

The Allegheny County Health Department is testing Pittsburgh's landmark fountain in Point State Park for waterborne Legionella bacteria because at least one recent visitor came down with Legionnaires' disease, park and county officials told the Tribune-Review on Monday.

The park manager and an independent Legionella expert said it's highly unlikely that water in the fountain caused the illness because the more than 800,000 gallons of recirculated water undergoes chemical treatments and is usually at a temperature not conducive to bacteria growth.

Interim county Health Director Ronald Voorhees said water tests are a standard precaution during investigations into Legionnaires' disease. The elderly and people with compromised immune systems are especially susceptible to the disease, a potentially severe form of pneumonia caused by Legionella bacteria inhaled in mist from water systems.

“I don't think it's high-risk at all,” Voorhees said of the park fountain, which closed in 2009 for an $11.9 million restoration project and reopened June 7. “We're just doing our due diligence.”

Voorhees said the health department routinely checks for Legionella in public places that Legionnaires' patients visited before being diagnosed. It wasn't clear on Monday how many locations are undergoing water tests in the investigation, but the bacteria often appear in water supplies.

County health officials collected water samples on Friday at the fountain and should have results in one to two weeks, said Matt Greene, manager of the state-owned park that includes the Fort Pitt blockhouse and museum.

As a precaution, Greene said, park workers began to increase chlorine levels in the fountain on Monday in advance of large crowds expected at The Point this week for the EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta, scheduled for Tuesday through Thursday, and the Fourth of July fireworks.

“Basically, that knocks down all the bacteria that may be in there,” Greene said. “It kills everything in there.”

Greene said the water temperature in the fountain is usually in the low 60s.

That's more than 10 degrees cooler than the optimal temperature for Legionella growth in water fountains, said Janet Stout, a microbiologist and director of the Special Pathogens Laboratory, Uptown.

“My concern would not be high” for risk of Legionella in the fountain, she said.

Five patients died from among as many as 21 veterans who contracted Legionnaires' from contaminated water in 2011 and 2012 in the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A decorative fountain on the VA's University Drive campus in Oakland was among the fixtures there found to be contaminated with Legionella.

Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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