Legionnaires’ Disease Death Toll in Bronx Climbs to 7

A town-hall-style meeting on the outbreak of Legionnaires' disease was held at the Bronx Museum of the Arts on Monday. Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

A town-hall-style meeting on the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease was held at the Bronx Museum of the Arts on Monday. Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

An outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the South Bronx has claimed three more lives, bringing the death toll to seven, New York City officials said on Monday amid calls for tighter regulation of water-cooling towers, which are thought to be the origin of the illness.

What We Know

    • Seven people have died, and 81 have fallen ill. The victims were older adults with underlying medical problems.
    • The source of the airborne illness, a form of pneumonia, is water-cooling towers contaminated with legionella bacteria that release water droplets into the air.
    • The number of cases of the disease tripled in the last decade in New York City, with many of them concentrated in high-poverty areas, mirroring anationwide surge of the disease. The fatality rate is 5 to 30 percent.
    • The city does not regularly inspect cooling towers, though building owners are expected to maintain them.
    • Drinking water, fountains, pools and home air-conditioner units are unaffected by legionella.

What We Don’t Know

  • Which of the five cooling towers in the South Bronx that tested positive for legionella is responsible for the outbreak.
  • The details of legislation proposed this week that would mandate maintenance checks of systems conducive to legionella development.
  • Why the cases of the disease have steadily increased. Possible causes include demographic shifts, improved diagnoses, and changes in the environment.

Of the 17 cooling towers officials examined in the South Bronx, five — including towers at the Opera House Hotel and the Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center — tested positive for the legionella bacteria, which can sicken people who inhale water droplets released from such towers. Though the five towers have since been decontaminated, the pollution has raised questions about measures in place to protect the city’s water systems.

The Bronx borough president, Ruben Diaz Jr., said that while the city responded swiftly and broadly once contamination was reported, he was shocked to discover a lack of measures in place for preventive monitoring of the towers. “Why, instead of doing a good job responding, don’t we do a good job proactively inspecting?” Mr. Diaz said.

Mr. Diaz was among several elected officials at a town-hall-style meeting at the Bronx Museum of the Arts on Monday night who advocated increased testing and maintenance of cooling towers.

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