Three Chicago area schools were closed last week because their water systems had dangerous levels of Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires Disease. Officials from School District U-46 closed Eastview Middle School, Larkin High School and the Educational Services Center, housing Gifford Street middle and high schools and the Central Schools Program, on Thursday and Friday while cooling towers were cleaned and sanitized.
The closures affected an estimated 3,000 of the district’s 40,000 students and about 300 employees. No illnesses have been reported.
Legionnaires’ Disease, which does not spread from person-to person, causes pneumonia-like symptoms including fever, cough, fatigue, confusion, aches and lung inflammation. It develops when water mist contaminated with Legionella bacteria is inhaled. The source of contaminated water mist can be showers, faucets, whirlpools, swimming pools, fountains or cooling towers in air conditioning systems.
The decision to close the schools was based on results of water quality tests performed during an annual inspection on Wednesday which showed all three sites had higher-than-normal levels of Legionella bacteria. “Upon receipt of the results Wednesday morning, the decision was made to immediately close those three buildings with the above-normal levels, and evacuate students and staff to ensure their safety, ” the district said in a statement.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) response for higher-than-normal levels of Legionella is to sanitize and disinfect the cooling systems. District U-46 began that process Wednesday and repeated it Thursday. It will contact students and staff about the re-opening.
Two other Legionnaires’ outbreaks have occurred over the summer. One, in the South Bronx area of New York City, sickened 124 people and killed 12. It was the largest Legionnaires outbreak in the city’s history. It was linked to contaminated cooling towers at the Opera House Hotel.
The other, at San Quentin State Prison in California, sickened at least 51 people. The prison receives water from the Marin County Municipal Water District and stores it in a tank on the prison property.
People most susceptible Legionnaires Disease are those over 50, current or former smokers, and those with chronic lung disease or other chronic illnesses such as cancer or diabetes.
Between 8,000 to 18,000 Americans are hospitalized each year with Legionnaires’ Disease. The condition is so-named because it was first discovered when an outbreak of pneumonia struck an American Legion convention in 1976.