Sick Building syndrome concerns for Bay Area Architects

The Co-op incident in North Bronx that headlined the news this past week has sparked an interest in Legionnaire’s disease. In this particular case, there were two incidents of the disease in the 15,000 unit complex in 2012, that were withheld by the management. There was speculation among the residents that the disease may have transmitted through contaminated shower heads. The residents expressed strong feelings that the incidents should have been disclosed to them even if the health department found no flaw in the building. This isn’t an isolated incident, as more and more people become aware about the relationship between their health and their immediate environment, specifically the buildings where they work and live, we will see health related issues triggering lawsuits. Residents and Building occupants will demand health related disclosures and workers’ compensation claims will address sick building syndrome.

The other day in Los Angeles we were talking to the partners at Environetics, during a peer advocacy discussion about Indoor Air Quality, sick building Syndrome and healthy buildings. Richard, one of the original partners, who has been with the firm since 1946 brought up Legionnaire’s disease. Richard’s comment triggered this blog about an often misunderstood and sometimes fatal type of Pneumonia

The disease got its name after numerous attendees at a convention of the  American Legion at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, suffered from an outbreak of pneumonia in 1976. 221 cases of the disease were reported that led to 34 deaths, most all complained of the same symptoms that included chest congestion and fever. Investigations led to a definitive connection between the building and the disease, in this case the bacteria was breeding in the cooling tower.

The bacteria that cause Legionnaire’s disease have been found in the warm, moist, air conditioning systems of large buildings, including hospitals. Water from cooling towers and even droplets of water from building plumbing fixtures,  humidifiers or nebulizers may in turn spread Legionella bacteria to humans.

Infection may take the form of pneumonia, or Legionellosis, which produces flu-like symptoms. Legionnaires’ disease can be potentially fatal. Symptoms are typical of pneumonia in general and include high fever, dry cough, chills, loss of appetite, headache, disorientation, and perhaps diarrhea or vomiting. More advanced stages of Legionnaires’ disease can cause difficulty in breathing and chest pains.  It can be very serious and can cause death in up to 5% to 30% of cases. Most cases can be treated successfully with antibiotics and healthy people whose immune systems aren’t compromised can usually recover from the infection.

Risk factors that compromise the immune system can  include:

  • Alcoholism
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Diseases such as kidney failure or diabetes
  • Diseases that weaken the immune system such as cancer
  • Long-term lung disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Long-term use of a breathing machine/ventilator
  • Chemotherapy and steroid medications
  • Old age

If bacteria are discovered in a building, treating water delivery systems is the best precaution; Legionella bacteria can be removed from water supply by heating methods that include steam, ionization/ozone treatment, UV light sterilization, use of strong disinfectant methods with chlorine, or copper-silver ionization treatment. Buildings specifically, with older plumbing and mechanical systems should go through routine checks to make sure that conditions are sanitary in the water supply systems and use the above mentioned methods to rectify problems.