Hospital hyperchlorinating its hot water

Effort seeks elimination of Legionnella organism

July 15, 1999|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Officials at Harford Memorial Hospital began hyperchlorinating the hot water system yesterday to ensure that no traces of Legionnella bacteria remain in the wake of a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that has sickened five people, leaving three dead.

Linden E. Witherell, a water treatment consultant hired by the hospital, said the move gives an extra measure of protection now that the hospital has heat-treated the hot water system, which preliminary tests pinpointed as the likely source of the infection.

"Most hospitals that have had outbreaks have gone to this kind of chlorination process," said Witherell, noting that normal levels of chlorine in the water dissipate when heated. He said all three hot water tanks will be outfitted with the chlorination device.

Dr. Victor Yu, the country's leading expert on Legionnaire's disease and a professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, said the heat treatment and flushing of the system on July 3 to kill any bacteria should have been enough to end the threat.

"It is possibly over-aggressive and not very cost-effective to chlorinate," Yu said. "Now what they should be doing is quietly sitting down and looking at their cultures to determine the level of contamination and decide whether or not they are going to go with a high-tech system in the future."

The disease, a form of pneumonia, is spread by water droplets in the air and can develop in air conditioners, whirlpools, spas and showers.

Dr. Diane Dwyer, state epidemiologist, said no new cases have been found at the hospital since the water was heat-treated, which leads officials to believe that the process destroyed the bacteria.

Hospital officials said 80 patients who were at risk for Legionnaires' disease have been tested, and only one previously identified case came back positive.

A hot line set up by the hospital had received 676 calls as of yesterday, with 25 referred to their personal physicians for further evaluation, the hospital said. Harford Memorial has contacted almost 300 of the 400 patients discharged from the hospital since May 1.

Hospital officials will monitor the hot water indefinitely, Witherell said. A device on the tank will check levels of chlorine, which Witherell said can be highly corrosive to the water system.

Yu said the state health department should advise hospitals to test water regularly for Legionella.

"This was all preventable, and not a single person had to die," Yu said. "The Maryland State Health Department has a responsibility to warn all of its hospitals about it, and there is a protocol set up and used by hundreds of other hospitals to deal with it."

In Maryland, no regulation requires periodic testing of health facilities' drinking water or other water sources for Legionella bacteria. Dwyer said the state follows recommended guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but would consider other methods.

"Certainly one approach that the CDC offers is the routine testing, but there is no recommendation for it," Dwyer said. " We are open to trying other approaches."

Pub Date: 7/15/99

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