Legionnaires' germ scare forces Naval Academy to remove people

Officials empty building where bacteria are found

July 15, 1999|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

The U.S. Naval Academy removed professors and students from an academic building yesterday after discovering higher-than-usual levels of Legionella bacteria, the germ that can cause Legionnaires' disease.

A Baltimore-based company that regularly inspects and tests the academy's water systems found the bacteria Tuesday afternoon in Rickover Hall, home of the school's engineering department. The bacteria were found in the water circulating through the building's cooling system. Academy officials said they did not think any of the bacteria had escaped into the air, nor was there any risk of contamination to drinking water, but air and water samples were taken to make sure. No illnesses have been reported.

"It's a closed-loop system," said spokesman Cmdr. Mike Brady. The bacteria-laced water stays in pipes and cools down air-conditioning units. "So, it doesn't freely interact with the atmosphere."

As a precaution, the academy evacuated the building yesterday morning and will keep it empty until at least Monday. More water and air samples were taken and the results were due today or tomorrow.

About 125 professors have been relocated to other buildings. Most of the school's 4,000-plus students are doing summer training at sea, but more than 1,000 freshmen began their summer training program this month, and some had attended lectures and classes in Rickover Hall.

The Baltimore testing company, Nalco Chemical Co., treated the contaminated water yesterday with chlorine, and reported to academy officials that the bacteria were most likely eliminated.

"They hit it with this chlorine-based chemical that kills the bacteria," Brady said.

Legionella bacteria were found in the same building in 1994, but no health problems were reported.

The academy conducts monthly tests for Legionella and other bacteria in its buildings. This was only the second time in recent memory that abnormal bacteria levels were found, Brady said.

Legionella bacteria in a hot water tank at Harford Memorial Hospital are being blamed for a recent outbreak of Legionnaires' disease, which has been diagnosed in five patients since June 26; three of those people have died.

The bacteria grow in lukewarm water, and are common this time of year in air-conditioning units, spas, whirlpools and showers. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that 20 percent to 60 percent of hospitals have Legionella bacteria in their drinking water.

Pub Date: 7/15/99

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