Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Wall of Death: Why You Shouldn’t Put a Fountain in a Hospital

Image Credit: star5112

The dastardly duo of water and bacteria have teamed up again to assault our species. Not content to sicken and/or kill us when we drink water or pour it up our noses, the pair have now conspired to stage their ambush from a vector few would suspect - decorative “water wall” fountains. An investigation into a 2010 outbreak of Legionnaires disease in Wisconsin concluded that the source of the deadly bacteria was the soothing, cascading water of a fountain situated in a hospital lobby.

In case you don’t spend as much time as I do reading about obscure illnesses, allow me to bring you up to speed. Legionnaires disease is an acute and potentially fatal respiratory ailment caused by Legionella bacteria (mostly the Legionella pneumophila species, if you like to keep your microorganisms straight). Both disease and pathogen got their names in 1976, when a particularly large and well-publicized outbreak occurred at the Philadelphia convention of the American Legion. 

The disease causes pneumonia, along with other symptoms that usually accompany it, including high fever, chills, and a cough. According to the CDC, Legionnaires disease kills between 5% and 30% of those afflicted with it. A less severe form of infection – without the troublesome pneumonia – called Pontiac fever can also result from the same bacteria. Collectively the two maladies are known as Legionellosis.

A person contracts Legionellosis by breathing in tiny aerosolized droplets of water contaminated with Legionella. The bacteria thrive in warm water, so any poorly cleaned water system may harbor them. Swimming pools, hot tubs, and cooling towers for large air conditioning systems have all been culprits in previous outbreaks. 

It’s uncertain just how much pathogenic mist one needs to breathe in to get Legionnaires disease. Of the eight individuals sickened by the Wisconsin hospital fountain (all recovered, by the way) most had only minimal contact with the bubbling bacterial menace, such as picking up prescriptions at the hospital pharmacy or delivering a package to the lobby.

The CDC reports that in the United States 8,000-18,000 people are hospitalized for Legionnaires disease annually. But given that the country’s population is estimated at over 310 million, even 18,000 is really nothing. This water wall fiasco is a fluke then, right? I mean it’s not like this has happened before or anything? 

Well, actually, the Wisconsin incident is the second documented outbreak of its kind. In 2007, at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, two cancer patients contracted Legionnaires disease following exposure to a similar fountain. Notice a pattern yet? Sick people and those with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to this disease.† And where’s a good place to find sick people? Yep.

It seems like it might be a wise for decorative fountains to stay the hell away from hospitals, doctors’ offices and any other haunts of the under-the-weather set. The Wisconsin hospital that was the source of the 2010 outbreak ditched its fountain, and many others in the state have followed suit. Farewell water walls.  You were a bit too Las Vegas for hospitals anyway.

* Named for a 1968 outbreak in Pontiac, Michigan.

† All eight of the Wisconsin Legionnaires disease sufferers had some underlying condition that rendered them vulnerable to the bacteria.

Note: Due to phonetic similarities to the term “water wall”, I’ve had the song “Wonderwall” by Oasis going through my head the entire time I was writing this. It’s not a happy feeling. I will now use the power of suggestion to inflict the same curse on you – “Wonderwall” is going through your head (unless you’re unfamiliar with the song, in which case consider yourself lucky).

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