The latest reports on the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Quebec City indicate a rising number of victims in what is already one of the deadliest outbreaks on record. There are 11 deaths among 169 total cases thus far, although officials believe that the number of new cases is waning. The source of the Legionella is thought to be a number of large-scale cooling towers whereby steam is released containing water droplets of contaminated water that can infect passers-by.
The large-scale nature of this outbreak makes it unusual as far as Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks go. Generally, a contaminated water system or a contaminated part of a water system in a building can lead to exposure and a small number of people get sick. But the source can be identified relatively quickly, and remediation efforts can prevent more people from contracting the bacteria. Investigations by public health authorities can identify the cluster: those who acquired the disease at that particular source.
In Quebec City, with dozens of potential sources over several miles, investigations are much different and much more complicated. The city has had to survey buildings with the types of cooling towers implicated, as well as inspect and disinfect them. The sheer scale of the investigation means a substantial amount of time, manpower, and money must be involved. So far, 130 cooling towers have been inspected and disinfected and 31 have been inspected twice. But the responsibility falls in the hands of building owners to ensure that the outbreak does not continue. So far, it is reported that many building owners have ignored government requests that they take action. The public health department has ordered that cooling towers be chlorinated and has distributed information kits for owners, explaining how they can maintain their cooling towers to avoid Legionella growth. Still, building owners are the ones who need to act.
Due to the high number of potential exposures, locating and investigating the individual cases becomes a much more difficult task. It will be interesting to see the direction that the investigation into this outbreak takes in upcoming days. Mayor Régis Labeaume has requested that the public health board release the locations of cooling towers where bacteria has been found to keep the public informed and help prevent further problems. Hopefully, efforts to decontaminate the cooling towers will be successful and will stop this outbreak in its tracks.
Jules Zacher is an attorney who focuses on Legionnaires’ disease litigation and has tried several cases throughout the U.S. His website, www.legionnairelawyer.com is a resource for information on Legionnaires’ disease, and related litigation.