Legionnaire's disease is making headlines in a big way. A recent outbreak that struck New York City left 12 people dead and more than 120 ill in the worst case of the disease the city has ever seen. In fact, although outbreaks are rare, Legionnaire's does infect thousands of people every year. Read on to learn more about this deadly ailment and what steps you can take to protect your family and keep the bacteria out of your household plumbing.

A Deadly Pneumonia in the Water Vapor

Legionnaire's disease is caused by the Legionella bacteria, so-named after an outbreak at the 1976 American Legion Convention in Philadelphia. The disease, which is a form of pneumonia, causes numerous symptoms including headache, fever, chest pains and shortness of breath. It is usually contracted when a person inhales contaminated water droplets and is not spread through person-to-person contact or drinking water. Elderly people are most at risk from Legionnaire's, as well as people who already suffer from respiratory ailments.

The New York outbreak was traced back to a contaminated cooling tower attached to a large-scale air conditioning system in the Bronx. It's more common, however, according to a recent CDC report, for people to contract the disease via poorly maintained plumbing systems, and particularly while taking showers. Hot tubs are another notorious harbor of the bacteria. That report combined with another found that of 24 people who died from Legionnaire's outbreaks in 2011 and 2012, 14 caught it from water systems, five from cooling towers or fountains, and five from unknown sources.

Less Common in Household Plumbing

Fortunately, the household plumbing in a single-family home is less likely to be a source of the disease. More frequently, it pops up in large buildings with plumbing or air conditioning systems that serve numerous people.

"The variety of settings and water sources implicated in the Legionella outbreaks reported here highlights the complexity of Legionella control . . . particularly in settings where susceptible persons congregate, such as hospitals, long-term care facilities, and other health-care settings," Karlyn Beer, of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote in the report.

On the other hand, outbreaks in general are on the rise. During 2011 and 2012, there were 32 outbreaks in total, resulting in at least 111 infections. All in all, the CDC estimates that 8,000 to 18,000 people are infected each year in the Unites States, the vast majority of them in isolated incidents, not as part of an outbreak.

How to Keep Your Family Safe

If you congregate regularly in a large building, like an office, school or hospital, you can ask what preventative measures the building managers take to ward off Legionnaire's. Be especially wary in public hot tubs because the high water temperatures make disinfectants less effective. Take comfort, however, in the fact that although outbreaks make headlines, the disease is actually quite rare and it's very unlikely you will contract it.

When it comes to your household plumbing system, take measures to avoid growing biofilm to prevent the conditions that can allow Legionnaire's to thrive. If you have any questions about the safety of your household plumbing or need help with a strategy to ensure its cleanliness, call an expert plumber today.

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