City lawmakers want to curb the proliferation of a deadly disease, which means taking aim at cooling towers — and some landlords who reportedly aren’t keeping up with inspections — in an effort to snuff out Legionnaires’ disease at the root.
The city council passed a bill March 28 designed to toughen a law combating the rising number of Legionnaires’ cases in the city. The original law — passed following the deadliest outbreak of the disease in the city’s history in 2015 — produced somewhat tepid results.
In fact, last summer, one-in-five cooling tower owners reportedly weren’t inspecting their structures regularly, as required by the law, even when they were issued fines and court summonses.
But now a new analysis from East Harlem councilman Ben Kallos’ office suggests it’s gotten even worse. Kallos discovered some 44 percent of landlords with cooling towers haven’t had them inspected since 2017 or earlier, according to the latest state data. The councilman believes landlords should be doing everything they can to protect their tenants and neighbors — because failing to do so could be fatal.
“When it is you, your aging parent, or child on the line, you want to know that every cooling tower is being inspected to catch Legionnaires’ before it can spread and kill anyone,” Kallos said, in a release.
But with passage of the bill, Kallos’ office suggests those living and toiling in the city can breathe a little easier as summer’s swelter nears. Because cooling towers — a breeding ground for Legionnaires’ disease — will finally have to report on their 90-day inspections that are meant to thwart it.
More than 1,000 of those towers around the city — around 20 percent — were out of compliance with inspections, which must be conducted while towers are operating. Kallos’ bill, co-sponsored by Brooklyn Councilman Kalman Yeger, mandates building owners receive electronic reminders from the city’s health department prior to the filing deadline for annual certifications. But it also would require cooling tower inspectors report to the city’s health department in real time when certain inspections occur, filing results within five business days of inspection.
This helps the health department ensure inspections actually are happening — and crack down with immediate enforcement, if needed. Additionally, the bill would require building owners to make cooling tower inspection results available to the public.
While the current law requires cooling tower inspections every 90 days, those findings are not mandated to be shared with the city’s health department unless they reveal the presence of Legionella bacteria above a certain threshold, Kallos’ office said. Furthermore, the current law only requires cooling tower owners and operators file an annual certification with the health department stating the inspections are occurring every 90 days.
But Kallos isn’t the only one waging war against Legionnaires’ disease, because it’s also laid siege of late to both North Riverdale and even Kingsbridge Heights. In fact, the Hebrew Home at Riverdale coped with an outbreak of its own when five residents there were discovered infected, and then treated, for the disease in 2017. Hebrew Home implemented more stringent water restrictions and testing following the incident.
All five recovered, according to Hebrew Home officials, and none required hospitalization.
Legionnaires’ disease was first identified in 1976, when a number of people who attended an American Legion convention in Philadelphia suddenly developed pneumonia. Nearly 30 of them died.
Its history is well known, which could explain why many quiver at even the mention of the disease. Yet, but a small fraction of people actually get sick from exposure to Legionella bacteria that causes the disease, according to health department officials, which typically afflicts those who are older or have weaker immune systems.
Although Jon Kole wasn’t aware Kallos’ bill passed, he has ensured the Hebrew Home already takes the disease — and its treatment protocols for it — “incredibly seriously” for at least a decade.
“We were actually doing all the things that were required (in the original law) before it was formally passed,” Kole, the Hebrew Home’s administration vice president, said. That law, stipulating stricter regulations on maintenance and inspection of cooling towers, was the city’s response to the deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the Bronx in 2015 — caused by bacteria that had formed in an improperly maintained water-cooling tower.
“But since it was passed, we’ve definitely formalized and memorialized all of the cooling towers we have on our campus, and are meeting those requirements every year since it’s been passed.”
Meanwhile, if “living in hell” weren’t already bad enough for Fort Independence Houses resident Jessie Torres and some of his neighbors, Legionnaires’ disease added to their worries when two people there were discovered last year to have contracted the disease within a 12-month period. That prompted an investigation by the city’s health department last August.
Both patients ultimately were at higher risk for the disease and eventually were discharged from the hospital, health department spokesman Christopher Miller told The Riverdale Press at the time.
Fort Independence doesn’t have cooling towers, and the health department’s investigation focused on the building’s internal water supply and plumbing, health spokeswoman Danielle De Souza said. Yet, tenant leader Barbara Lauray wasn’t thrilled with the city’s response.
“I would like a better explanation of how this came about in the beginning,” Lauray said. “We need to be educated immediately. We’re all using the same water supply. Where did this come from?”
Even Kole recognizes certain challenges. Like the fact the Hebrew Home is a nonprofit organization, with a finite amount of cash on hand.
“There is an incredible cost associated with the measures that we are required to take, and also choose to take,” he said. “Although we would do this no matter how much it costs, because it’s to protect elderly adults.”
Still, “I could see these requirements, for people who aren’t as on top of it, being a financial strain.”
Regardless, that doesn’t take away from the fact these laws are “incredibly important.”
“It forces organizations and individuals to comply and make the city a safer place,” Kole said. “And I think we’re all for that.”