Expert viewpoint: Could Legionnaires’ bacteria lurk in idled buildings?

This post originally appeared on the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center blog.

Editor’s note: Many businesses are closed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and some building managers have shut off water and air conditioning to conserve resources. Unfortunately, warmth and lack of clean water flow can contribute to the growth of potentially dangerous microbes, including the bacteria that contribute to Legionnaires’ disease. Illinois Sustainable Technology Center chemist and industrial water treatment specialist Jeremy Overmann spoke with News Bureau life sciences editor Diana Yates about the problem and potential solutions.

What are the potential sources of tainted water in an unoccupied building?

When a building is unoccupied, water stagnates in the building’s plumbing systems and the disinfectant (chlorination) dissipates.  Bacteria can then multiply and form biofilms on the internal surfaces.  Without regular use of water, the temperature in these systems may rise or fall into the range in which Legionella bacteria can grow. As a result, the hot and cold tap water systems – including storage tanks, ice machines, drinking fountains and water softeners – can become unsafe. Other potential sources of Legionella include sprinkler systems, decorative fountains, hot tubs, eyewash stations, safety showers, humidifiers and idle cooling towers.

How might these sources expose or infect returning workers?

If water containing Legionella is released from any of these systems in a manner that produces aerosol, mist or droplets, these can be inhaled and cause a serious, sometimes fatal pneumonia. Another route of exposure, though less likely, is aspirating contaminated water into the lungs while drinking. The symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease are the same as some of those from COVID-19 and could result in a misdiagnosis. Legionella does not cause harm when ingested, however other pathogenic bacteria might be present, which can cause infection by this route and even by skin contact.

What can building managers do now to minimize or eliminate the threat?

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers has written a standard that establishes minimum legionellosis risk management requirements for buildings with complex water systems. Standard 188-2018 directs building managers to assemble a water management team and write a water management program for the facility. If the facility has a WMP, managers should review it and meet remotely with the water management team.

The WMP should include protocols for maintaining safe water systems in unoccupied buildings. If none exist, the team might be able to develop them. Generally, hot and cold plumbing systems – including water softeners, equipment, storage tanks and all fixtures – need to be thoroughly flushed a minimum of once per week to remove stagnant water and replace it with water containing an adequate level of chlorination.

A water softener may be regenerated as an alternative to flushing. Drinking fountains should either be flushed regularly or shut off completely from the water supply. If they are shut off, the fountains must be cleaned according to the manufacturer’s instructions before being used again for drinking.

Ice machines should be disconnected from the water supply and stored according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Decorative fountains and hot tubs should be turned off, drained and stored dry. The same goes for humidifiers and cooling towers, if they are not needed. If still needed for cooling, the tower water circulating pump should be kept on continuously, water should be continually bled from the tower, and adequate biocides should be applied regularly to maintain control of biological growth.

What should water system operators do if they have already left their facilities idle for weeks?

Operators should consult the facility’s water management program, as it should contain protocols for start-up of water systems after shut-down or a period of nonuse. The water systems will likely need to be flushed, cleaned, disinfected and recommissioned. After being remediated, they should be tested to verify the safety of the water and the presence of adequate disinfectant.

Who can facility managers call on for advice, inspection or treatment of their tainted systems?

I recommend hiring a reputable water management consultant with experience remediating these types of systems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a guidance document containing relevant information for building water systems that is available on its website.

Editor’s note:  To contact Jeremy Overmann, email

Coronavirus forces California farmworkers to scramble for safe drinking water

Read the full story from FERN.

With stores rationing bottled water, some 1 million residents whose tap water is tainted with agricultural pollutants confront the state’s failure to solve the problem

‘A threat multiplier’: The hidden factors contributing to New York City’s coronavirus disparities

Read the full story at Grist.

Earlier this month, the New York City health department released a map showing confirmed COVID-19 cases by zip code. The highest case counts were concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. The same week, the city released preliminary data highlighting higher rates of death among black and Latino New Yorkers.

Environmental advocates say that hazardous environmental conditions have contributed substantially to the coronavirus outbreak’s severity in New York City’s low-income communities of color.

Jakarta’s trash mountain: ‘When people are desperate for jobs, they come here’

Read the full story in the New York Times.

The scavengers who make a living picking plastic, metal, and even bones from a huge landfill face additional misery as the global economic slowdown closes the recycling centers they count on.

The toxic chemicals in our homes could increase Covid-19 threat

Read the full story in The Guardian.

Everyday hormone-disrupting chemicals could affect our immune system’s defenses against infections

Michigan PFAS Action Response Team launches grant program for municipal airport PFAS testing

The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) announced today a $4 million grant program available to municipal airport operators to support ongoing monitoring and testing for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination.

Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) will oversee the grant program. 

Eligible applicants are current or former Part 139 commercial service airports in Michigan that have used or are suspected to have used Class B Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) to comply with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements. Federal, state and military aviation facilities are not eligible for the grant funding, although co-located municipal airport operations can apply.

Grant applications are due on May 29, 2020. Grant recipients will be announced in July and range from $50,000 to $250,000.

Priority will be given to airports that demonstrate:

  • Known or suspected impacts to sensitive receptors such as residential wells.
  • Known or suspected impacts to lakes, streams and wetlands, especially waterbodies used for drinking water.
  • Releases known to be above Michigan’s groundwater cleanup criteria.
  • Detailed documentation of historic uses of AFFF.
  • Hydrogeological risk factors such as groundwater flow direction.
  • Continued overall compliance with environmental regulations.

A request for proposals (RFP) detailing the grant program can be found at  EGLE will also host a webinar on the program Tuesday, April 28th at 1 p.m. Register for the webinar.

For additional questions about the application process or general grant process questions, contact Steve Houtteman, MDOT Aeronautics, at

PFAS are a large group of man-made chemicals that have been used in many consumer and industrial products, such as non-stick cookware, waterproof fabrics and firefighting foam. 

Danone Institute North America launches second grant program

Read the full story in Dairy Reporter.

Danone Institute North America, a non-profit innovation center established by Danone North America, has launched its second annual “One Planet. One Health” Initiative grant program.

Paper From Plant Waste Can Replace Plastics: Varden Startup Receives $2M Boost

Read the full story in Forbes.

A startup from Australia has plans for global expansion, replacing plastic in items like coffee pods with an eco-friendly paper made from plant waste.

EPA Recognizes Food Recovery Challenge Award Winners

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has nationally recognized the exceptional accomplishments of 15 businesses and organizations participating in EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge. This year’s national award winners applied innovative approaches and engaged in a variety of practical cost-effective actions and best practices to prevent and reduce food waste.

“Food Recovery Challenge participants are leaders in showing how preventing food waste and diverting excess wholesome food to people is an environmental win and a cost-saving business decision.” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “Their accomplishments serve as excellent examples to other companies, governments, organizations and communities.”

Food is a valuable resource. Efforts to reduce food waste and ensure excess food doesn’t go to waste are needed now more than ever. The innovation these businesses are showcasing can also serve as an example as the nation works together to address the COVID-19 public health emergency. Over 1,000 businesses, governments and organizations participated in EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge in 2019. Participants prevented or diverted over 815,000 tons of food from entering landfills or incinerators, saving participants up to $42.3 million in avoided landfill tipping fees.

This year’s winners used innovative best practices to prevent and reduce food waste, such as:

  • Expanding composting infrastructure to more than double yearly food waste composted,
  • Creatively working with food banks and organizations to donate food that would otherwise be wasted,
  • Repurposing wholesome food into new dishes instead of letting it go to waste, and
  • Initiating programs that encourage composting and reducing food waste in the workplace.

EPA is recognizing Food Recovery Challenge participants and endorsers with awards in two categories: Data-driven and Narrative. The data-driven award recipients achieved the highest percent increases in their sector comparing year to year data. Narrative award winners made notable achievements in the areas of source reduction, leadership, innovation, education and outreach and endorsement.

Data-Driven Award Winners by Sector

  • Grocers:  Sprouts Farmers Markets Store #407 (Alhambra, California)
  • Colleges and Universities: Keene State College (Keene, New Hampshire)
  • K-12 Schools:  Katharine Lee Bates Elementary School (Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts)
  • Sports and Entertainment Venues:  Savor…Chicago at McCormick Place – South Building (Chicago, Illinois)
  • Hotels, Resorts and Lodging:  MGM Resorts International – Bellagio Hotel and Casino Las Vegas (Las Vegas, Nevada) 
  • State/Tribal/Local Government: Los Angeles County Department of Public Works – Environmental Programs Division (Los Angeles, California)
  • NonProfit:  ProduceGood (Encinitas, California)
  • Food Manufacturing: Signature Breads, Inc. (Chelsea, Massachusetts)
  • Restaurants and Food Service Providers: Captain’s Galley Restaurant at Pickwick Landing State Park (Counce, Tennessee)

Narrative Award Winners

  • Source Reduction: Wylie ISD Birmingham Elementary (Wylie, Texas)
  • Leadership: Firekeepers Casino Hotel – Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi (Battle Creek, Michigan)
  • Leadership – Honorable Mention:  Wylie ISD Harrison Intermediate School (Wylie, Texas)
  • Innovation:  Windward Zero Waste School Hui (Kailua, Hawaii)
  • Education and Outreach: Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (Los Angeles, California)
  • Endorser:  Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (Nashville, Tennessee)


Food waste is the single largest type of waste thrown away each year in our daily trash. In 2017, more than 40 million tons of food waste was generated. Food waste adversely impacts the economy, our communities and the environment by wasting the resources used to grow and transport food. At the same time, approximately 11 percent of America’s households had difficulty providing enough food for all of their family members in 2018. Hungry people in need would benefit from the redirection of nutritious, wholesome food that would have otherwise been thrown away. The strategies used by Food Recovery Challenge organizations, plus those implemented by individuals, communities and public-private partnerships help to lessen these impacts and bring the United States closer to meeting the national goal to reduce food waste by 50 percent by the year 2030.

Two award winners this year, MGM Resorts International and Sprouts Farmers Market, are also U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions, a group of businesses and organizations who have publicly committed to reduce food loss and waste by 50 percent in their own operations by the year 2030.

For more information

Bike lanes provide positive economic impact

Read the full story from Portland State University.

Despite longstanding popular belief, bicycle lanes can actually improve business. At worst, the negative impact on sales and employment is minimal, according to a new study. Researchers studied 14 corridors in 6 cities — Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Memphis, Minneapolis and Indianapolis — and found such improvements had either positive or non-significant impacts on sales and employment. Essentially, adding improvements like bike lanes largely boosted business and employment in the retail and food service sectors.