Legionella bacteria found in several school district water fixtures

WEST ORANGE, NJ — After finding low levels of legionella bacteria in some water samples from Redwood Elementary School in August, West Orange School District contracted with Garden State Environmental to test all schools and district facilities for legionella bacteria, which can cause Legionnaires’ disease.

According to a Sept. 25 update from the district, testing conducted in all school buildings and the administration building during the first week in September revealed low amounts of legionella bacteria in the administration building; Gregory, Hazel, Mt. Pleasant, St. Cloud and Washington elementary schools; Edison and Roosevelt middle schools; and West Orange High School. No legionella bacteria was found in Liberty Middle School, Betty Maddalena Early Learning Center and Kelly Elementary School. Testing in the transportation building will be completed Sept. 27. Following chlorination of its water fixtures, retest results for Redwood Elementary School are due back Sept. 28.

Remediation efforts are already under way in the district for the sites that tested positive for legionella bacteria.

This testing process began during the summer. After the discovery of legionella in various West Orange Township locations in July, a parent whose child attended a summer program at Redwood Elementary School contacted the school district to say their child had been affected with flu-like symptoms similar to those caused by Legionnaires’ disease.

At that time, the district hired Garden State Environmental to testing for legionella bacteria. On Aug. 14, results from the tests indicated that four of the 15 samples taken at Redwood Elementary School contained very low levels of legionella bacteria.

In conjunction with Garden State Environmental, township Health Department representatives and district personnel met to discuss test results and remediation efforts so resources could be compared and utilized effectively between the district and township.

“We have been advised of the following facts with regard to legionella: it is not contagious, person to person; it is not airborne; it cannot be contracted by drinking or touching water; and the way it is contracted is by inhaling contaminated mist,” West Orange Health Director Theresa DeNova said in a press release. Cooling mist is created by cooling towers used by air conditioning systems, the release added.

On Aug. 30, New Jersey American Water tested sinks and water fountains at Redwood Elementary School for coliform bacteria. The results were satisfactory in accordance with the Safe Drinking Water Act standards, according to John Spangler, manager of water quality and environmental compliance for NJAW.

Even though the Redwood Elementary School samples met the standard, OMEGA Environmental was hired to perform a disinfection procedure using a hyper-chlorinated solution on Sept. 10 and 11. The procedure includes the following: chlorine is pumped into the hot water heater and remains in the hot water tank for four hours to eliminate any bacteria; chlorine is then pumped through the hot water piping system and remains in the system for 14 hours to eliminate any bacteria; chlorinated water is drained from the hot water tank and hot water piping system and flushed with fresh water; and water samples are drawn and retested after the hyper-chlorination procedure to verify that the water again meets the Safe Drinking Water Act standards.

Additional steps taken at Redwood included: installing filters on the water sources that tested positive; replacing faucets in the affected areas; proactively and temporarily covering all water fountains despite the fact that the legionella bacteria only presents a risk from exposure to airborne droplets and not from drinking affected water; removing, cleaning and sanitizing all aerators, or screens, in all rooms; and, where possible, changes in the plumbing systems will be done to minimize the potential for future bacterial growth. To complete the process, the remediation is being carried out on weekends.

All affected schools will undergo the same remediation as Redwood Elementary School by OMEGA Environmental, followed by retesting by Garden State Environmental. Water bottles will be available at all schools until testing and remediation is completed.

The remediation schedule is as follows:

  • Mt. Pleasant had the chlorination process completed Sept. 19 and was retested for legionella bacteria on Sept. 24.
  • St. Cloud had the chlorination process completed Sept. 22 and will be retested Sept. 27.
  • Hazel will have the chlorination process completed Sept. 28 and 29. Retesting will be done approximately four days after the chlorination process.
  • Gregory, Washington and the administration building will have the chlorination process completed Oct. 5 and 6, Oct. 12 and 13 or Oct. 19 and 20. Retesting will be done approximately four days after the chlorination process.
  • Edison and Roosevelt will have the chlorination process completed Oct. 26 or 27 or Nov. 2 and 3. Retesting will be done approximately four days after the chlorination process.
  • West Orange High School will have the chlorination process completed Nov. 8 to 11. Retesting will be done approximately four days after the chlorination process.

The results from the retesting will take approximately 7 to 10 days for each building. A new update will be provided when the chlorination process is completed and/or when retesting results are available.