The Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering (CIPHE) is urging caution when it comes to the hazards of legionella and other biofilm contamination of water systems as workers on a train line threatened to strike over fears of the bacteria.
Legionella – the bacteria that causes the potentially fatal Legionnaires’ disease – has an incubation period of just 2-10 days. It is usually contracted by inhaling tiny water droplets. Those displaying symptoms normally require antibiotics to reduce the chance of developing serious and sometimes life-threatening complications.
Legionella was found to be present in a small number of Thameslink Class 700 train toilets. On discovering it, Thameslink locked the toilets and took the trains out of service to drain, bleach and refill the tanks. In a statement, Thameslink sought to minimise the risk, stating: “Legionella can potentially be spread through atomised water droplets in the air in enclosed spaces, but water in our toilets is gravity-fed, which makes this extremely unlikely and further lowers the already very low risk.”
But the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) said it had been raising concerns with Thameslink for weeks. Seven toilets on four trains had actionable traces of the bacteria. The RMT has subsequently announced that members have been prepared for strikes if urgent action is not taken.
Kevin Wellman, CEO of the CIPHE said: “While there have been no recorded Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks due to train toilets to date, legionella is a very serious issue and should never be underestimated. Legionnaires’ disease normally hits its peak number of cases during the milder months of June-October, so that places us firmly in the danger zone. Outbreaks can prove deadly, especially to those with underlying health conditions.
“Legionella and other biofilm-associated bacteria can thrive in stagnant, or standing water. It may come as a surprise to many business owners and landlords that it can develop in all man-made hot and cold water systems, as well as air conditioning systems, hot tubs and even compost. The CIPHE is urging facilities managers and business owners to acquaint themselves with the risks of legionella and the importance of only ever using professional plumbers to assess water quality.
“With businesses returning to the office after a prolonged closure we are entering a period of significant risk… The plumber’s role in protecting public health is absolute. Regular risk assessment and testing of water systems should be given the highest priority.”