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Washington Crown Center mall water tested for Legionella contamination

| Friday, May 17, 2013, 10:19 p.m.

Pennsylvania American Water began testing tap water Friday at Washington Crown Center mall in North Franklin after low levels of Legionella bacteria showed up in routine testing at a Pittsburgh VA outpatient clinic there.

Results of the utility's testing won't be available for five to seven days, but bacteria experts agreed the exposure risk for getting Legionnaires' disease at the mall is slim. Legionella bacteria in the clinic registered at one to 20 colonies per liter, according to test findings received on Thursday by the clinic.

That's a fraction of the 10,000-colony trigger for cleanup required under federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.

“For healthy people, it's not an issue, really,” said Dr. Paul Edelstein, director of a microbiology laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania. “You can find Legionella in residential water anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent of the time.”

He said Legionella typically threaten people with weakened immune systems who inhale the bacteria through shower mist or other water vapor. They can develop Legionnaires' disease, a form of sometimes deadly pneumonia that sickened as many as 21 patients during a VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System outbreak in Oakland and O'Hara from February 2011 to November 2012. Five of those veterans died.

No veterans or staffers at the outpatient clinic in North Franklin are known to have become ill from contaminated water. The clinic is leased and operated for the Pittsburgh VA by Cincinnati-based Sterling Medical Corp., Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman David Cowgill said.

VA workers were combing through records to see whether any patients treated at the clinic later came down with pneumonia, he said.

“To date, we are satisfied with Sterling Medical's prompt response in addressing and remediating this matter,” Cowgill wrote in an email.

He said about 5,000 veterans would receive a disclosure letter about the Legionella discovery signed by Pittsburgh VA Deputy Director David Cord.

Meanwhile, the clinic closed and canceled appointments Friday as workers installed a new system to superheat and clean the water. The clinic is scheduled to reopen Monday.

“I would err on the side of caution and shoot for no positivity” in Legionella tests, said Bob Miller, president of Earthwise Environmental Inc., a water systems company in Bensenville, Ill. He cautioned no firm guidelines predict when a person might encounter and fall sick from the bacteria.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported it knows of no safe level of Legionella.

Still, microbiology researcher Janet Stout said the amount reportedly discovered in the outpatient clinic “is almost infinitesimal.” She said it “does not raise red flags” and is not serious enough to trigger alerts to other mall businesses.

Stout, a former VA worker who now runs the Special Pathogens Laboratory, Uptown, said she consulted about the discovery with Sterling Medical and Pennsylvania American, the Hershey-based water utility that serves Washington Crown Center mall.

“Most people live side by side with Legionella for their entire lifetimes with no harm done,” Stout said.

Pennsylvania American saw no reason for alarm and set no water restrictions in the neighborhood while it collected water samples from the mall, company spokeswoman Josephine Posti said. The company also would check for coliform and disinfectant levels as a precaution, she added.

Washington Crown Center spokeswoman Lisa Pellicciotta would not say whether the mall plans additional water tests. “We are looking into the whole situation,” she said.

Workers at several mall businesses said they first learned about the contamination from the Tribune-Review. The Kid's Kingdom Day Care Center, which adjoins the VA outpatient clinic, sought and received assurances from Pennsylvania American and mall management that it was safe to stay open, owner Jennifer Collins said.

“At this point, we are open and haven't been informed there is a problem,” she said.

Adam Smeltz and Luis Fábregas are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Smeltz at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com. Reach Fábregas at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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