UPDATE: Three U-46 Schools to Re-Open Monday After Legionnaire’s Scare
UPDATE MONDAY, SEPT. 28
SOURCE: School District U-46
All three closed sites will reopen Monday, Sept. 28, U-46 School District announced on its website.
U-46 has followed and exceeded industry standards for responding to news that three of our cooling towers, all located outside the buildings, had higher-than-normal-or near-higher-than-normal levels, per OSHA, of legionella bacteria.
Local medical experts support our plan to reopen schools Monday. The district has a plan going forward to prevent this incident from reoccurring.
There is no evidence that students or staff were at risk for contracting any illnesses related to these test results.
Quick Facts From School District U-46
SOURCE: School District U-46
- We evacuated school last Wednesday upon receiving culture results that showed that we had levels judged by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to be just below or just surpassing a level considered acceptable for legionella bacteria in three of the outdoor water coolers used to cool our buildings, specifically the cooling towers at Larkin High, Eastview Middle School and the Educational Services Center which houses several of our alternative programs including Gifford Street High School, in addition to the district administration.
- These refrigeration evaporative condenser units (cooling towers) are completely separate and have no connection in any way to the drinking water in the buildings or the air conditioning units inside the building.
- The director of Infection Control and Prevention at Advocate Sherman hospital, Dr. Bob Tiballi, an expert in this field, is working with the district and he has endorsed & confirmed the district has taken all the right steps to respond to this bacteria, eliminate the bacteria in the cooling towers, and that there is little to no risk that anyone would have contracted an illness or disease.
- This very low-risk situation would be outside the building, rather than inside the building. Only those with significant risk factors, such an elderly persons with advanced lung disease or severe immune compromise who were inhaling the air near the cooling towers prior to the sterilization treatments undertaken last week, would be considered to be at risk of developing significant illness.
- It’s very possible to be exposed to the legionella bacteria and not get ill.
- Symptoms of illness related to legionella can range from mild flu-like symptoms to pneumonia, but again, we would expect only older people with significantly compromised immune systems who were breathing the air outside the towers to be at risk of developing any related illness.
- Anyone who is still questioning their health should see a doctor and ask for a “Legionella direct antigen” urine test which can detect the specific strain of the legionella bacteria isolated on the cultures of the cooling towers.
- The district will perform more frequent testing and sanitizing of these cooling towers on a regularly scheduled basis going forward.
What was tested, why and what the results showed
Typically, in September each year, the district checks the 19 cooling towers for operation and efficiency purposes, removing any algae and generally ensuring the towers are working properly.
This year, based on a new industry standard, the district added a new piece: testing the water in these outdoor cooling towers for legionella bacteria based on a June 2015 recommendation from the refrigeration industry’s primary professional association, ASHRAE, The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.
U-46 Response to Date
U-46 relies on health experts and industry safety standards to inform our decisions regarding results such as those received earlier this week about bacteria found in three of our cooling towers.
In the absence of any guidance from health and safety officials, beyond the cleaning protocol that we have followed and exceeded, “we have to do our best to make decisions that protect the safety and well being of students and staff and will always err on the side of caution when faced with a potential risk,” the school district said.
Officials’ first step was to close the three sites impacted; Eastview Middle School in Bartlett and Larkin High School in Elgin as well as the Educational Services Center, housing two alternative secondary programs, and evacuate students and staff in an abundance of caution.
They conducted that evacuation in less than 30 minutes Wednesday morning, moving 3,000 students and about 350 staff members to other locations.
The air conditioning/refrigeration industry protocol for responding to an above-average bacteria level is to sanitize and disinfect the cooling systems, a process the district implemented immediately Wednesday and repeated Thursday, Friday with plans for more work on Saturday. Note these cooling systems are not connected to building plumbing; they do not impact drinking water.
The steps taken to rid the system of this bacteria strain are as follows:
- A “shock” of all 19 cooling towers comprised of draining the towers and flushing them with four times the recommended level of cleaning agents on Wednesday and Thursday.
- De-scaling or removal of any hard water deposits on the three cooling tower with the higher-than-normal levels of the bacteria.
An additional shock of all three towers is scheduled for Saturday.
Additional supporting information about this protocol can be found on the ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) here:
Importantly, the test and the results reported this week were new to district officials, based on the most updated standards in heating and cooling, and the district has in place a plan moving forward to prevent this type of incident from happening again.
“We believe, and doctors have confirmed, that students and staff were at very low risk of falling ill due the findings in the test results,” the district said.
Dr. Robert Tiballi, infectious disease specialist and chair of Infection Control at Advocate Sherman Hospital, confirmed that the risk of students or staff developing illness from exposure to Legionella is low. Exposures only occur when aerosolized water particles containing the bacteria are directly inhaled.
“I am confident that the steps taken by the district have reduced what was previously a very low risk of exposure to a level that approaches zero risk of exposure or infection,” Dr. Tiballi said. “The bacteria is most problematic for people with severe underlying immune suppression, advanced lung disease or those who have a long history of smoking.”
More about the results
Schools, like any organization or business, must conduct health and safety tests to meet various industry standards for the protection of the students and staff within the buildings.
A water management company conducted the new test Sept. 8 and Sept. 9 on 19 cooling towers. Note that 53 schools are in the district, but only 19 have the type of cooling towers that were tested.
CEO Tony Sanders received results Sept. 23 that indicated three of 19 cooling towers had near-above or above-normal levels of Legionella bacteria. The 19 towers are located at the following schools:
Elgin, Larkin, Streamwood, South Elgin and Bartlett High Schools as well as Gifford Street High School, Kenyon Woods Middle School, Tefft Middle School and Eastview Middle School, as well as Centennial, Fox Meadow, Horizon, Huff, Lords Park, Ontarioville, Prairieview, Spring Trail, Sycamore Trails and Willard Elementary Schools.
The test results received Wednesday morning showed that three of these (above listed) 19 schools had higher than normal levels of Legionella bacteria. A normal or safe level, per Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is 1,000 cfu/mL (colony-forming units per milliliter).
The results from the three sites with near-above average or higher levels are as follows:
- Eastview Middle School: 1,480 CFU/mL
- Larkin High School: 940 CFU/mL
- Educational Services Center/Gifford Street High School: 1350 CFU/mL
A point of clarification: This was not air-quality testing. This was, as stated above, the results of tests to the water in the 19 cooling towers.
An ASHRAE press release on the June 2015 new testing standard included the following quote and information:
“The industry interest and input into developing this standard has been tremendous,” Presidential Member Tom Watson, chair of the committee that wrote the standard, said. “With 8,000 to 10,000 cases of Legionnaires’ Disease reported each year in the United States, and with more than 10 percent of those cases fatal, it is vital that we set requirements to manage risk of this bacteria.”
ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 188-2015, Legionellosis: Risk Management for Building Water Systems, is intended for use by owners and managers of human-occupied buildings and those involved in the design, construction, installation, commissioning, operation, maintenance and service of centralized building water systems and components.
What Health Experts know and say about LKegionella bacteria
- There are no public health guidelines for levels of Legionella in a potable water system, as there are not maximum contaminant levels(MCLs) established for Legionella as there are for coliform or E. coli bacteria.
- The presence of Legionella in a water system is not an adequate predictor of disease.
- Legionella are found naturally in the environment and are present at low levels in many water systems.
- Background levels of Legionella are not known to be a significant risk when associated with proper water.
- Maintaining proper water quality suppresses the growth of Legionella bacteria and inhibits development of biofilms which support growth of the bacteria.
- Exposure to Legionella occurs when aerosolized water particles containing the bacteria are inhaled. Most people exposed to the bacteria do not become ill.
- Elderly people, smokers, and people with chronic lung disease or weakened immune systems are more vulnerable to resulting illness.
- The disease is not contagious and cannot be transmitted from one person to another.
Legionnaires’ disease is a severe form of pneumonia caused by the Legionella bacterium. Legionnaires’ disease usually develops two to 14 days after exposure to Legionella bacteria. It frequently begins with headache, high fever, and chills. By the second to third day of illness symptoms of pneumonia may develop, including cough, chest pain, and shortness of breath. A milder infection caused by the same type of Legionella bacteria is called Pontiac Fever. The symptoms of Pontiac Fever usually last for two to five days and may also include fever, headaches, and muscle aches; however, there is no pneumonia.
Symptoms go away on their own without treatment and without causing further problems. If you develop any symptoms, please consult with your doctor.
More information about Legionella can be found on this page of the CDC website.
Anyone with specific health concerns related to these findings should visit their physician or health clinic.
There have been had no reports of any illnesses related to these environmental results.
What School District U-46 will do going forward to prevent this incident from reoccurring:
- Moving forward, the School District will ensure that testing is scheduled before the onset of the school year.
- It will immediately implement a more frequent professional testing and sanitizing schedule.
- It will consult with an infectious disease physician about our future testing for diseases.
UPDATE FRIDAY, SEPT. 25
SOURCE: U-46 Website
U-46 Expects to Re-Open Schools Monday
Eastview Middle School, Larkin High School, Gifford Street High School and Central Office remain closed Friday.
Three School District U-46 schools are expected to re-open their doors Monday after test results showing “higher than normal levels of Legionella bacteria” closed them on Wednesday.
Eastview Middle School, Larkin High School and the Educational Services Center, housing Gifford Street middle and high schools and the Central Schools Program, remain closed today (Friday, Sept. 25.) District officials said they have followed and exceeded the required cleaning protocol for their cooling towers and will continue the cleaning process Friday.
Legionella bacteria can cause Legionnaire’s disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The bacterium was named after an outbreak in 1976, when many people who went to a Philadelphia convention of the American Legion suffered from this disease. An estimated 8,000 to 18,000 people are hospitalized with Legionnaires’ disease each year in the U.S.
People get Legionnaires’ disease or Pontiac fever when they breathe in a mist or vapor (small droplets of water in the air) that has been contaminated with Legionella bacteria, the CDC says. Keeping Legionella bacteria out of water is the key to preventing infection.
“We have gone above and beyond industry standards and guidelines to ensure the safety of our staff and students,” said CEO Tony Sanders. “We have absolutely no evidence that anyone was exposed to anything harmful, but we will always err on the side of caution in the face of a risk to staff and students. We will keep these schools closed Friday while we take additional safety measures as discussed today with our water management consultant and state health officials.”
Nineteen of the district’s 53 schools have the type of cooling towers that required testing and were tested for industry safety standards Sept. 8 and 9. The remaining schools have other types of cooling systems.
Test results received Wednesday morning showed that three sites (Larkin High School, Eastview Middle School and the Educational Services Center) had higher or near-higher-than-normal levels of Legionella bacteria. A normal or safe level, per Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is 1,000 cfu/mL (colony-forming units per milliliter).
The protocol for responding to an above-average bacteria level is to sanitize and disinfect the cooling systems; a process the district implemented immediately Wednesday and repeated Thursday. The district will continue to clean the cooling systems Friday to ensure the safety of staff and students at the three sites.
The district has been in communication with the Illinois Department of Public Health, the Kane County Department of Health as well as the Kane County Regional Office of Education. It remains up to district officials and the School District U-46 Board of Education to determine when to open and close schools due to test results that exceed the industry standards.
Attendance at the district’s additional 50 schools was normal Thursday, officials said. The district has shared information regarding the school closing through its automated message system as well as on its website and social media. The schools are expected to re-open Monday.
ORIGINAL STORY POSTED WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 23
Three Elgin-area schools closed Wednesday (Sept. 23, 2015) after air-testing showed higher than normal levels of Legionella bacteria.
U-46 CEO Tony Sanders said via Facebook that he made the decision to close the schools immediately after annual air-quality testing of school cooling towers found higher-than-normal levels of Legionella bacteria at Eastview Middle, Larkin High School and at the Central Office/Gifford Street High school programs.
- Eastview students are being transported to Bartlett High until parents can pick them up.
- Gifford Street High School and Central Schools program students are moving to Elgin High School.
- Larkin students will be dismissed to go home if they walk, or will wait outside until buses arrive. Special needs students will be transported.
- ESC/Central Office staff were asked to go to either Bartlett High or Elgin High to assist with students.
Sanders asked parents to note that the ESC/Central Office is closed.
“Emergency operations will be at our Plant Operations facility off of Shales Parkway,” he said.
The Illinois Department of Public Health is handling the exposure issues. The Kane County Health Department is referring questions to U-46 and IDPH.
More information will be added to this article as it is posted by official sources.
Kane County Health Department Resources
- The Courier-News (Tribune) — U46 closes some schools because of Legionella bacteria
- WLS — 3 Elgin schools closed by Legionella bacteria
- USA Today — Chicago area schools evacuate amid Legionella scare
- Washington Times — 3 Elgin schools evacuated after Legionella bacteria found
- UPI.com — 3 Illinois schools closed after Legionella bacteria found
- WGN TV — 3 suburban schools evacuated after Legionella bacteria found