As governments begin easing COVID-19 restrictions, the NSW Ministry of Health (NSW Health) has issued a reminder that building owners and occupiers have a legal obligation to ensure air conditioning cooling towers are properly maintained, to reduce the risk of Legionnaires’ disease.
“There has been an increase in cases of Legionnaires’ disease across the Sydney metropolitan area this autumn,” says NSW Health, “and cooling towers are a known source of the bacteria that causes the disease, Legionella pneumophila. Legionnaires’ disease cannot be spread from person to person.”
NSW Health’s Acting Executive Director of Health Protection NSW, Dr Richard Broome, says Public Health Units in local health districts across NSW investigate the cause of every single case.
“We have seen 33 cases of Legionella pneumophila in NSW between March and May this year, compared to 25 cases over the same period last year,” Dr Broome says.
“A person’s symptoms can develop up to 10 days from the time the person is exposed to contaminated water particles in the air. People who develop this disease are diagnosed by chest X-ray and a urine test, and usually require antibiotic treatment in hospital.”
Symptoms include fever, chills, a cough and shortness of breath and may lead to severe chest infections such as pneumonia. Early symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease can be similar to symptoms of COVID-19, so it is important to seek advice as soon as possible.
“When a case of Legionnaires’ disease is identified, NSW Health works with the relevant local councils to ensure cooling towers in the areas visited by the case are properly maintained,” Dr Broome says.
In 2018, NSW Health strengthened the Public Health Regulation to reduce the community’s risk of Legionnaires’ disease, requiring building owners to comply with Australian Standard 3666, conduct monthly tests on cooling towers and to notify high levels of Legionella and other bacteria to local councils.
In NSW, more information about water cooling systems management is available through each Public Health Unit on 1300 066 055, at the NSW Health website, or through local councils.
AIRAH also has a suite of technical materials covering water cooling systems management.
The advice from NSW Health follows recommendations from national industry bodies that building owners and occupiers must take precautions when returning to spaces that have been vacated due to COVID-19.