LAS VEGAS – Michael Hurtado spent the past year in pandemic toilets. Once a week. Hundreds of toilets. Thousands of times.
“Every week we go through the whole property and wash every toilet, run every sink by hand, turn on every shower. “You start at one end of the floor and by the time you get back, you can turn them off,” he said.
Hurtado is a leading engineer at the Ahern Hotel, next to the Las Vegas strip. It is officially was closed during the pandemic and Hurtado was tasked with keeping the buildings safe despite the lack of guests.
“It easily takes 60 hours a week every week for my team,”
Maintaining water movement is necessary to protect enclosed buildings against pathogens that can accumulate in their kilometers of pipes.
The one that keeps safety experts up at night is Legionella pneumophila, the bacterium that causes 95% of legionnaires’ cases. That kills at least 1,000 Americans a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It is almost certain that we will be at risk of more legionnaires after the shutdown,” said Michele Swanson, a professor of microbiology at the University of Michigan and an expert on legionella.
The bacterium occurs naturally in lakes and streams and most often becomes a problem when sitting in stagnant, lukewarm, non-chlorinated water and multiplying, said Swanson, a committee member of the National Academies of Sciences, who wrote a report in 2020. for the management of Legionella in water systems.
These are exactly the conditions that can occur in the pipes of a closed building. The warm water is cooled to reach rising Legionella temperatures. Chlorine from the municipal water treatment system does not last long in stagnant pipes, said Chris Nancrede of Nancrede Engineering, an Indianapolis-based company that specializes in control and service systems at Legionella.
“Without new water flowing through the hot water system to displace the old one, it can dissipate quickly,” he said.
Empty rooms and clean pipes
Water management companies said they receive double and triple the usual number of calls as buildings prepare to reopen.
“The calls went through the roof,” said Brian Weimer, chief executive of IWC Innovations in Greenwood, Indiana. Its staff has treated hotels, corporate buildings, healthcare facilities, sports arenas and residential buildings in 45 countries.
One of those calls was from Ahern, who is working with the IWC to create a water management plan ahead of the hotel’s planned opening for the third quarter.
If there’s one silver cladding on COVID-19, it’s that people think of biosafety in ways they weren’t, said Keith Wright, general manager of Ahern.
“People come to Las Vegas to have fun, not to get sick. We are here to make sure that this does not happen, “he said.
Wright, Hurtado and the IWC team spent a day last month sampling tap water throughout the hotel, recording temperatures from hot water taps and monitoring the water system at the eight-story 200-room hotel and conference center.
This included crawling around bedroom-sized air conditioners, inspecting bathroom-sized boilers, and climbing multi-story cooling towers.
What they found impressed them. “This place is so clean you can eat from the floor,” said Bill Pearson, the company’s chief scientific officer. Even the stainless steel of the pipes coming out of the heat sinks gleamed.
Hard to catch, but deadly
Legionnaires’ disease is rare but deadly, and one case can damage a building’s reputation for years.
The main route of infection is breathing in water-contaminated water mist. Symptoms include cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches, headache and fever.
According to the CDC, less than 5% of people are likely to get sick if exposed. The greatest risk is for the elderly, smokers and those with impaired immune systems.
Of those who become ill, 10% will die.
To prevent cases of eruption, the CDC issued guidelines last year on the safe opening of buildings after prolonged shutdowns.
Even the country’s top health agency was not safe. In August, several Atlanta office buildings where the CDC leased space had to be closed after Legionella was discovered in water systems.
In San Francisco, the Utilities Commission was so concerned about the number of large buildings where water consumption had dropped by 50% to 70%, it sent guidelines to 952 of them on how to safely flush pipes when they reopened.
Although water engineers should be concerned about legionnaires’ disease everywhere, the general public should not, said Richard Miller, a longtime legionnaire researcher at the University of Louisville who runs consulting services.
Legionnaires’ disease is not contagious and people cannot get it from drinking water. It can only shrink by inhaling bacteria.
“If you drink water that contains legionella, there is no disease because stomach acid kills it,” Pearson said.
The biggest danger zone is healthcare facilities, as they have a vulnerable population. The CDC estimates that 25% of legionnaires’ disease acquired in health facilities is fatal.
For the general public, showers in hotels are where most cases start.
“Bathing is not such a big problem. This is the shower in the hotel, ‘said Miller. “Office buildings are not almost the same risk because you will not stay overnight.”
Other sources of infection are decorative fountains, jacuzzis and cooling towers, which are part of large-scale air conditioning systems. In 2015, a cooling tower in a building in New York City was responsible for a fire that infected 138 people and killed 16 people, some of whom lived at intersections.
Well-maintained water systems with properly followed water management plans usually have no problems, experts say.
“Basically, keep hot water hot, cold water cold, and everything moves,” said Mark Lechevalier, who has led research programs at American Water, a multi-country program, for 32 years.
When things go wrong, the most common remedy is to inject high levels of chlorine into the building’s water system and let it stand for up to 12 hours.
This is not a simple solution. The entire water system of the building must be turned off, which requires the placement of signs on each water source and personnel for its implementation.
“Then, when you’re done, you have to turn on every tap, turn on every shower and wash every toilet until the chlorine returns to less than 4 parts per million. You can’t miss a thing, “said Pearson, who has led hundreds of such cleanings.
It costs $ 10,000 to $ 25,000 for a typical building, he said, but could go much higher.
“That’s why buildings need to get water management plans; it’s much cheaper than rebuilding,” he said.
Eventually, the buildings can be designed to make Legionella impossible, but that’s a long-term goal, Nancrede said.
“The whole field for the detection and control of legionella is very young. We are in a constant state of learning, “he said.
The latest ideas include filters to catch bacteria, ultraviolet light to disinfect the water stream, biofilm-resistant tubes and design buildings so that bacteria cannot grow.
“We’re starting to talk about engineering legionella outside the systems, so no chemicals are needed,” Nankrade said. “But then you have to talk about how many feet per second the water moves and what size the pipes are, so they have a certain speed.”
So far, the best attack is good defense.
“You don’t want to make people sick and you don’t want to kill people,” Nankarde said. “It’s not something stunning, you just have to plan.”
Contact Elizabeth Wise at email@example.com
This article originally appeared in the US TODAY: Legionnaires’ disease is troubling as buildings reopen after COVID is shut down