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Advocates Say Public At Risk For Legionnaires' Disease

Lucas Willard

New York leads the nation in cases of Legionnaires' Disease. The disease, which can be spread through drinking water, is caused by bacteria and can be fatal.

In 2016, 718 New Yorkers contracted Legionnaires' disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that number is higher than any other recorded number in the U.S., followed by Ohio, California, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

Advocates called attention to the issue at a press conference inside the Legislative Office Building at the New York State Capitol on Tuesday.

A new report authored by the Alliance to Prevent Legionnaires' Disease examined an outbreak of the disease in the South Bronx in the summer of 2015.

The outbreak prompted state and city officials to enact emergency regulations. But the group says the regulations are ineffective and that the disease has remained an issue in New York City and across the state.

The lung disease can be spread through drinking water systems.

However, Daryn Cline, spokesperson for the Alliance, said the good news is infections can be reduced through certain actions.

“Programs can be put in place to more effectively disinfect our public water systems, upgrade our water system infrastructure to reduce increasing biofilm risks, publicly announce system failures and events that trigger bacterial releases within 24 hours, investigate all cases of Legionnaires' disease using CDC tools for single cases, positively identify the source of Legionella after the investigation,” listed Cline.

Cline was joined by the Allergy & Asthma Network and renowned environmental advocate Erin Brockovich.

“I’m not here today to point the finger at any one entity or person. That is not going to help any of us. I’m here in support, today, of their mission, Legionnaires' disease in New York, and how many times we’ve worked with this,” said Brockovich.

Brockovich also made a stop in the region last year when she met with Hoosick Falls residents living with chemically contaminated drinking water.

Brockovich said environmental regulations without enforcement are pointless. She introduced Bob Bowcock of Integrated Resource Management, Inc., a California-based water quality consulting firm.

“You didn’t have this outbreak because it started yesterday. This has been building and going on for a while. So these are the numbers of reported outbreaks from the state of New York, starting in 2011,” said Brockovich.

“Yeah, basically, in 2011 you had 616, ’12 – 502, ’13 – 756, ’14 – 625, 2015 – 846, and ’16 – 718,” read Bowcock.

“That says to me there’s been lack of enforcement,” said Brockovich.

It’s not just New York that does not require water all municipalities to test for the bacteria. Bowcock said there’s no federal law on the books either.

“Until somebody dies of it, somebody does an autopsy, somebody identifies the Legionella, then they’ll go looking. And they’ll blame it on something unrelated. ‘Somebody was using a dirty humidifier. Somebody didn’t clean their shower company.’ It’s coming from the public drinking water system. We do not regulate from the source to the tap in the country and it’s gotta start and it’s gotta start now,” said Bowock.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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