The South Bronx epidemic was spread by bacteria that can develop in water mist released by cooling towers atop or adjoining major buildings across the five boroughs.
For more than a decade, air-conditioning engineers have known that, without proper maintenance or protective equipment, the mist can transmit the germ that produces the form of pneumonia known as Legionnaires’.
After at least eight Legionnaires’ cases emerged at Co-op City in the Bronx last January, city health officials pinpointed a cooling tower as the source of the infections. The victims were treated and survived — but neither the health nor the building department mounted a drive to address the threat posed by the ubiquitous equipment.
In May, nine fresh cases emerged in Flushing, Queens, with health officials concluding that they had likely originated in a cooling tower and the water system in a New York City Housing Authority senior citizens’ center.
Again, doctors treated the ill — and Mayor de Blasio’s administration moved on without mobilizing to curtail the source of the bacteria. Jointly, Dr. Mary Bassett and Buildings Commissioner Rick Chandler made a fatal error in underestimating a known risk.
Although the Buildings Department has since 1992 required owners to secure permits for new cooling towers, it is impossible for the Daily News to report how many of the mist-producing structures dot the city, because the mayor was either unable to pull the number out of the building department’s files or unwilling to provide an estimate — at least in the hundreds, perhaps in the thousands — that would scare the daylights out of New Yorkers.
Out of 17 South Bronx cooling towers inspected by the city in July as infections spread, five showed signs of harboring the bacteria. Almost one in three. You do the math.
The Legionella bacteria cannot be spread by person-to-person contact and can be found commonly in the general atmosphere. It is only when the germ grows into harmful concentration and moves through the air that danger arises.
The city has experienced roughly 200 cases annually for the last nine years, but the number has been gradually rising, perhaps because doctors have improved their ability to pinpoint Legionella as causing specific cases of pneumonia. With the South Bronx outbreak, the city’s tally has jumped to 260 in the first seven months of the year.
While the Health Department responded swiftly and smartly to the outbreak with care and medical detective work, the South Bronx toll has spurred de Blasio, Bassett and Chandler to promise inspections of every air conditioning tower in the city, with mandatory cleanups for those that test positive.
The mayor also spoke of legislation that would require special reporting by building owners.
Caught way behind the curve, de Blasio understandably wants to move quickly. Better that he takes the time to make sure that his solution is the best one. Experts have been working on the issue with the federal Centers for Disease Control for some time. Their wisdom could be particularly useful now.
Most urgently, the mayor needs to get a grip on the scope of the peril and how to limit further casualties.