When you think of potential disease vectors, Verizon probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But this week, New York Attorney General Letitia James announcement the findings of a three-year survey of building cooling towers across the state. That doesn’t look good for Verizon.
“Verizon failed to maintain its cooling towers on buildings in New York, causing the spread of Legionnaire’s disease, a dangerous and deadly form of pneumonia,” James said in a tweet.
The announcement of the results, which examined Verizon’s cooling tower maintenance record from 2017, comes amid two new clusters of Legionnaires’ disease in the United States, including an outbreak in the Bronx that has so far killed two people and infected at least 24 others. The New York City Health Department has now connected these cases to four specific cooling towers in the Highbridge area of the Bronx, where the bacteria was found growing. The Health Ministry did not specify who was responsible for overseeing the towers. The Covid-19 pandemic may have contributed to an increase in these types of outbreaks, as unexpected building closures may have facilitated the growth of bacteria in water and plumbing systems.
Cooling towers like those used by Verizon are often placed on rooftops and are typically used to cool machinery, such as air conditioning systems and telecommunications equipment. There are many types of such infrastructure that private companies install in and around densely populated areas. Companies that operate this type of equipment are expected to follow best practices to ensure that their equipment does not become a safety hazard. But when this infrastructure is not carefully maintained – and regulators fail to detect violations – it can become dangerous and even lead to public health problems.
Legionnaires’ disease, caused by Legionella bacteria, is just one of them. The disease takes its name from an outbreak of the disease at a convention for the American Legion, a veterans organization, in 1976. Although it is often present in natural water sources, such as ponds, streams and lakes, this bacteria becomes problematic. when it ends up in human-made water systems, such as hot tubs, sinks and plumbing.
Once bacteria start growing inside these devices, they can spread through tiny drops of water which, if inhaled, can infect a person’s lungs and cause pneumonia. Legionnaires’ disease can usually be treated with antibiotics, and the symptoms of the disease are usually difficult to distinguish from other infections. However, the disease can be dangerous for people with certain risk factors or conditions, including people over 50 or people with cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about one in 10 people who get Legionnaires’ disease die of complications. The disease is not transmitted from person to person.
That’s where Verizon’s cooling towers come in: A cooling tower can spray the water it uses to cool equipment into the air. If this water contains Legionella bacteria, these bacteria can also enter the air, where they can infect people nearby. These cooling towers are of particular concern because they can operate at ideal temperatures for the growth of this bacteria, especially during the summer. These cooling towers are also everywhere, as they are used to cool everything from air cooling systems to machinery used for industrial processes and power generation.
“Electronic equipment gives off a ton of heat and they have to keep it cool to work,” Brian Labus, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Public Health. “Any time you have computer systems, which these places have, there’s a ton of heat produced, and they [have] to get rid of the heat, otherwise they will melt all their equipment.
Buildings and businesses that operate these cooling towers are expected to take a range of measures to prevent the growth of bacteria, including repeatedly monitoring their equipment for possible infections. New York, for example, passed state and local laws to regulate such rides more aggressively after 138 people were diagnosed – and 16 people died – with Legionnaires’ disease during a 2015 outbreak in the Bronx. .
After these laws were passed, the state attorney general’s office began investigating cooling tower owners to ensure they were meeting New York’s requirements.
According to the attorney general’s investigation, Verizon — which hires other companies to run its towers — failed to regularly inspect its cooling towers and effectively disinfect those cooling towers after the bacteria was discovered. Overall, the company has racked up at least 225 breaches in about 45 different locations in New York. Now Verizon must pay an $118,000 fine and adopt several new procedures to ensure it maintains these towers safely. The company told Recode that it admitted no wrongdoing.
“Legionnaires’ disease remains a deadly presence in areas of our state, especially in low-income communities and communities of color,” James said in a statement Thursday. “It’s critical that companies like Verizon take the necessary steps to prevent the spread of this preventable and deadly disease.”
Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks remain a concern in the United States. In addition to the recent cluster of cases in the Bronx, New Jersey health officials linked a cluster of Legionnaires’ cases last month to a Hampton Inn, and in 2019 the Georgia Health Department linked an outbreak. which probably caused nearly 80 cases of the disease at the hotel’s cooling tower. Legionella bacteria have also repeatedly appeared in unexpected places, such as a beverage processing plant, hot water tanks used at a Ford manufacturing plant, a GlaxoSmithKline site and a cooling tower used by Disneyland.
But inevitably, the results of the New York survey serve as a wake-up call to the many companies building or using infrastructure in cities and towns across the country, especially those that rely on water to cool it.
“As a tech company, you probably wouldn’t think of infecting someone with something [that’s] operate your equipment,” Labus said. “It shows the importance of paying attention to your systems and providing the appropriate levels of preventative maintenance and making sure you don’t get to the point where you can spread disease to others.”