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Workers returning to office buildings may face health risks other than coronavirus

Stagnant plumbing systems could pose risks
Stagnant plumbing systems could pose risks 05:17

There may be health risks other than coronavirus as office buildings reopen their doors to employees and visitors. If the buildings did not have water flowing through their pipes during the lengthy shutdowns, that stagnation could potentially put people at risk of Legionnaires' disease.

Legionnaires' disease is a type of pneumonia that is caused by the bacteria Legionella pneumophila, which can grow in water systems. People can get the disease if they breathe in droplets of water contaminated with the bacteria. About one out of every 10 people with Legionnaires' disease will die due to complications, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. 

Normally, when water is flowing regularly, there are ways to prevent the spread of bacteria, Dr. Andrew Whelton, an associate professor of civil engineering and environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University, said on CBSN Thursday.

"If we have good plumbing that we keep maintained, and we have hot temperatures, and we have chlorine disinfectant in there, we can keep that Legionella out of the water ... but when we let water sit there, that's a serious problem," he said.

Whelton said building owners need to keep water moving. "If you can do that, then you can avoid this consequence of stagnation."

In addition to office buildings, hotels, gyms and schools could all be at risk.

"I had a school call me the other day, they left two months ago and they now have stagnant water in their building and they just heard that stagnant water is bad, so they called and they said, so what do we do now?" Whelton said.

Whelton said there are no national standards or industry guidelines about what building owners should do in these situations. 

"In March 2020, there was nothing," he said. "Since then, over 45 different documents have been released by state governments, county governments, local governments, water utilities, private consultants, device manufacturers, warning about the issue of water quality deterioration in buildings and safety. But there's really no standardized process, so it's kind of a little bit of a free-for-all."

The CDC recommends eight steps before reopening a building that has had stagnant water, including ensuring the water heater is properly maintained and flushing the water system.

Whelton recommended that workers make sure their employers are providing information about what they are doing with their building's water system. 

"You want to know what the building owner's going to be doing. Are they going to be flushing toilets more often? Are they going to be flushing the other water fountains more often? These are questions that building occupants and visitors need to be told about," he said.

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