Legionnaires’ update: Community Board says city must do better

Madeleine Ball for the NYC Council.

Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Mayor Bill de Blasio at an August 10 press conference, announcing legislation to inspect cooling towers.

Three Hunts Point, Longwood buildings test positive for legionella

Community Board 2 says the city must do a better job keeping residents and landlords updated about developments in the recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, after cooling towers on three local buildings tested positive for legionella.

The health department recently announced that cooling towers on the block-wide BankNote building on Lafayette Ave., the Verizon building at 1106 Hoe Ave. and an NYPD detective office at 1086 Simpson Street tested positive for the bacteria that causes the sometimes fatal illness that has shaken the city over the last month.

There is no indication anyone has fallen ill from exposure to the local sites but health officials say the recent outbreak in the South Bronx was probably caused by bacteria in local cooling towers, and that the area’s high rates of illnesses such as asthma may be an exacerbating factor leading over 100 residents with compromised immune systems to contract Legionnaires’.

In all, cooling towers on 19 South Bronx buildings and one in East Harlem have tested positive for legionella so far. Mists from those towers can spread the bacteria through the air and sicken people, primarily the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, with the pneumonia-like illness.

All of the towers that have tested positive so far have been disinfected.

Between July 10, when the first case was contracted, and early August the outbreak has killed 12 and sickened 119 in the South Bronx, though the number of patients who have gotten sick has tapered off considerably in the last two weeks.

Earlier this month, management at the BankNote circulated a letter informing tenants that the health department had found legionella in its cooling towers on August 5. They wrote that the city had told them it was “requiring the cleaning and disinfection of the cooling towers at 1201 Lafayette Avenue.”

But management’s letter also contained a pointed barb, noting that the city “has not provided to building management results of any sampling that its inspectors performed leading up to the Order of the Commissioner.”

Rafael Salamanca, district manager of Community Board 2, said the landlord has a right to be frustrated with the health department.

“I don’t understand why DOH isn’t reaching out to buildings. It’s very unfair,” said Salamanca.

“They’ve been trying to reach out to DOH to find out what the status is, but DOH has been non-responsive,” he said, adding “a building that size with that many tenants needs to be made aware. There needs to be more transparency because you want full cooperation.”

Among the BankNote’s tenants are the John V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy Charter School, the Bronx’s Human Resources Administration, which serves up to 2,000 clients per day, and a clinic of Hunts Point based Urban Health Plan.

On August 13, the City Council responded to the health crisis by pasing a bill mandating regular inspection of cooling towers to prevent future outbreaks. The new law requires landlords to register all cooling towers with the Department of Buildings. Earlier in the month, health officials addressed the public at the Bronx Museum of the Arts on the Grand Concourse, and got an earful from tenants of South Bronx buildings complaining that they were skeptical the cooling towers on their buildings were ever cleaned or inspected.

Owners of buildings with cooling towers will be required to conduct quarterly inspections and show annual certification. Failure to register or submit the certification will leave landlords liable to penalties of up to $2,000 for a first violation and $5,000 for a second one. Additionally, landlords will be fined up to $10,000 if someone is seriously hurt or dying as a result of a violation, and can be sentenced to a year in jail for failing to comply with cleaning and disinfection mandates.

As of early August the city had identified 20 towers that tested positive for legionella. Health officials say they don’t know whether the illness was caused by contaminated mist people may have breathed from multiple towers, or from just one.  The city urges anyone with suspicious flulike symptoms to seek treatment.

The Bronx sites the city says tested positive and have been disinfected and remediated are:

  • Concourse Plaza, 198 E. 161st. St.
  • Opera House Hotel, 436 E. 149 St.
  • Lincoln Hospital, 234 E. 149th St.
  • Streamline Plastics, 2950 Park Ave.
  • Daughters of Jacob Nursing Home, 1160 Teller Ave.
  • Post Office, 558 Grand Concourse
  • Verizon, 117 E. 167th St.
  • Bronx Housing Courts, 1118 Grand Concourse
  • Samuel Gompers HS, 455 Southern Boulevard.
  • Dept of Homeless Services PATH Intake Center, 151 East 151st Street.
  • Bronx Hall of Justice, 245 E 161ST Street
  • Chris’ Super Deli, 903 Sheridan Avenue
  • Pyramid Safe Haven, 470 E161st Street
  • Conway Store, 2952-4 3rd Avenue
  • St. Barnabas Nursing Home, 2175 Quarry Rd.
  • St. Barnabas Hospital, 4422 3rd Avenue


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