Poly-Seal's fourth case confirmed Legionnaires' disease outbreak in Baltimore to close factory today

Water systems to be flushed

Hot water, chlorine to be used to remove Legionella bacteria

October 10, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

As health officials identified a fourth case of Legionnaires' disease yesterday among employees of a Southeast Baltimore plastics plant, Poly-Seal Corp. announced it will close the factory this morning to disinfect its water systems.

The factory's five water systems will be flushed with very hot water and high concentrations of chlorine to make certain that no Legionella pneumophila bacteria remain, said Levi Rabinowitz, a media consultant hired by Poly-Seal to speak for the company.

Waterchem, an Aberdeen company that maintains the plant's water systems, will coordinate the cleanup.

Rabinowitz said the plant, which employs more than 500 workers, is expected to reopen Tuesday or Wednesday after the cleaning is complete.

Some workers might be called back as early as Monday to prepare for the reopening.

The plant's east building was closed and 250 workers laid off Tuesday after state health officials said Legionnaires' disease might have caused the death of 51-year-old Joenell Fisher and pneumonia among five other workers.

Tests confirmed Wednesday that the death and two of the five pneumonia cases were Legionnaires'.

A third case of pneumonia was confirmed yesterday to be Legionnaires', said Dr. Diane M. Dwyer, director of epidemiology and disease control at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Medical tests are incomplete on the two remaining pneumonia victims and on several other workers who have suffered coughs, fever and other respiratory symptoms that could be caused by Legionella bacteria, she said.

A team of medical investigators has worked all week interviewing employees and inspecting the Poly-Seal plant's five water systems -- one for drinking water, one for air conditioning and three providing water cooling for the machines that turn out plastic caps and seals.

They have taken water samples that are being tested for Legionella.

"We've taken samples from everything, and now we're cleaning up everything," Dwyer said.

When tests are complete, investigators will try to match the specific type of Legionel- la bacteria found in the patients, if it can be identified, to bacteria in the water samples.

"It may be we find no source in the plant, one source or more than one source," Dwyer said.

Legionella bacteria are relatively common in water supplies. The bacteria proliferate only when they find an ideal growth environment -- stagnant water at 95 to 115 degrees.

They cause disease when the contaminated water is "aerosolized" and a person inhales the tiny drops.

Past outbreaks have been linked to cooling towers that are part of industrial cooling systems, including Poly-Seal's, as well as air conditioners, showers, humidifiers and even the machines that spray produce in the grocery store.

Even when a large number of people are exposed to the bacteria, a relatively small proportion are usually made ill. The most vulnerable are smokers, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.

The disease is treatable with erythromycin, a common antibiotic, but is fatal in 5 percent to 15 percent of cases, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since 1993, 31 deaths in Maryland have been reported as a result of Legionnaires' disease, according to the state health department. All of the deaths except Fisher's were isolated, often occurring among hospital patients who were weakened by other conditions.

The Poly-Seal outbreak is the first cluster of cases from a single site since 1990, health officials said.

Pub Date: 10/10/98

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