Illness spurs shutdown at U.S. complex Legionnaires' case at Security West

cleanup scheduled

'Not cause for alarm'

Infection source could be elsewhere, officials contend

August 03, 1996|By Lisa Respers and Timothy B. Wheeler | Lisa Respers and Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

A Woodlawn building used by thousands of Social Security Administration employees will be shut down this weekend, after a manager was diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease -- prompting health concerns among co-workers.

Agency officials told employees yesterday that the manager's illness was an isolated case and that there was no cause for alarm at the Security West Complex, a leased building where 3,200 employees work.

Today and tomorrow, the building will be closed, and the water system -- which could harbor disease-producing bacteria -- will be flushed and heated for purification. Water samples have been collected, and tests conducted on the air conditioning and heating system; results are due in seven to 15 days, officials said.

"This building is pretty well maintained and carefully monitored," said Dr. David W. Fouts, the agency's on-site physician. "The fact that there is only one case leads us to believe that he contracted it outside of the building."

But many employees were unconvinced and worried about the potential hazard from the disease, which can cause severe pneumonia and can be fatal.

"People are really concerned," said Emma Elder, a health and safety official with Local 1923 of the American Federation of Government Employees. "There have been complaints of stagnant water and leaks in that building."

Officials said the manager, a middle-aged man, worked on the sixth floor of the Security West Complex in the Office of Program and Integrity Reviews. Officials declined to identify him, but said he has worked for the agency for 29 years.

"According to his doctor, he's responding to treatment and is doing well," said agency spokesman Tom Margenau. "There is no confirmation at this time that he contracted this at work," he said.

"If there's only one case, I think there's probably not cause for alarm," said Dr. John G. Bartlett, chief of infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Only when several cases occur do health officials have cause to investigate for a common source.

Agency officials met yesterday with about 200 employees who work on the same floor as the manager to assure them that Legionnaires' disease is not contagious. Fouts told them that the disease can only be contracted by inhaling airborne water particles that contain the bacterium.

"The gentleman had been sick for about two weeks, and doctors initially suspected he had pneumonia," Fouts said later, adding that symptoms of Legionnaires' disease are similar to those of pneumonia. "Test results received [Wednesday] showed he had the disease."

Fouts said the bacterium flourishes in stagnant water. While there have been a few incidents of pneumonia in the building, there has not been an unusually high number of illness-related absences there, he said.

The Security West complex, which is used for overtime work on weekends, will be closed today after 1: 30 p.m. and all day tomorrow while the water system is flushed with chlorine and heated to kill possible disease-causing bacteria, officials said.

Gary Arnold, deputy associate commissioner for facilities management, said test samples have been taken by Cafritz Corp., which owns and maintains the building, a quarter-mile from the agency's main building.

Health concerns are not new at the agency. Employees have long complained of illnesses they believe may have been caused by workplace conditions.

Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a 2nd District Republican, said his office has received several complaints about environmental concerns at the agency and management's alleged failure to respond. The complaints have been turned over to the Inspector General's Office and are being investigated, he said.

Legionnaires' disease is caused by the Legionella pneumophila bacterium, which breeds in warm, moist places. The bacterium is often found in water, including air conditioning systems, tap water, showers and creeks and ponds.

It can cause severe pneumonia and can be fatal, though most serious illness tends to occur in men older than 50. The risk is higher for smokers or people with organ transplants or underlying illnesses, such as diabetes, cancer, lung problems or kidney infection.

Early symptoms are similar to influenza: headache, high fever, chills, muscle ache and coughing. It is treatable with antibiotics.

Twenty-six cases of Legionnaires' disease were reported to the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene last year, and seven this year. Health experts believe that many cases go unrecognized, confused with other forms of pneumonia.

All the cases reported in Maryland in the past two years have apparently been unrelated, and there have been no outbreaks identified by state health officials in the past five years.

An employee in Social Security's Metro West downtown office building got Legionnaires' disease in 1994, but that case apparently was isolated. Agency officials said at the time that tests of the building's ventilation system found no evidence of the bacterium.

Pub Date: 8/03/96

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