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Brett Chase
By Brett Chase January 16, 2018

Rauner says 'Legionella bacteria is in most water systems in Illinois'

In 2015, during Bruce Rauner’s first year as governor, a virulent outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at the state-run Illinois Veterans’ Home in downstate Quincy killed 12 residents and sickened dozens of others.

Since then, according to recent news reports, the facility has been plagued by more illness and deaths from Legionnaires’, which experts say is usually linked to the inhaling of a bacteria that thrives in poorly maintained water systems. It was also reported by WBEZ that Rauner administration officials delayed public disclosure of the 2015 outbreak for nearly a week after discovering it.

Critics claim the governor’s failure to act quickly to safeguard the water at Quincy after the initial incident displayed an indifference to the fate of the elderly military veterans who live there. Family members of victims have filed suit against the state over their deaths.

Meanwhile, one potential Democratic challenger to Rauner’s re-election, J.B. Pritzker, began running TV spots attacking the Republican incumbent’s handling of the Quincy situation.

Rauner insists his administration did not drop the ball, and recently spent seven days living at the home to make a public show that it was safe.

He also took aim at the media for casting blame his way without telling the whole story.

In an interview with the editorial board of the Joliet Herald-News, Rauner said news reports failed to explain that the source of the disease is basically everywhere.

"The reality is, and this is what’s not getting into the reports, the Legionella bacteria is in most water systems in Illinois," Rauner told the paper. "There were just two infections of Legionnaires at Northwestern Hospital, which is not even an old facility and I think is regarded as a really well-run facility. These things happen."

We wondered if the governor is right. Are bacteria that can cause Legionnaires’ disease lurking in most building water systems? And, if so, what public health danger does that pose?

Dangerous, but largely preventable

Legionnaires’ disease is a severe and sometimes deadly form of pneumonia that derives its name from its first recognized outbreak in 1976 at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia.

Most at risk are the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, cited by state officials as one reason why the outbreaks at the Quincy facility proved so serious.

Legionnaires is spread through aerosolized water drops inhaled into the lungs, with showers, faucets, hot tubs and mist from large building air-conditioning units serving as common sources for spreading the infection. The disease is unlikely to be spread from drinking contaminated water.

Rachel Bold, a spokeswoman for Rauner, cited explanations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and the scientific journal PLOS One to reinforce his claim that bacteria that can cause the disease are widespread.

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However, none of those sources contained information confirming that a majority of Illinois building water systems contained the bacteria, known as Legionella.

Erik Olson, health program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Legionella likely can be found in many water systems. Even so, Olson said it was "misleading" for Rauner to attempt to frame the danger so broadly.

Trace amounts of the bacteria don’t pose a threat unless allowed to grow due to poor building maintenance, Olson explained.

He likened the phenomenon to that of coliform bacteria, which are also widespread in the environment. Many forms of coliform bacteria are harmless, he said, while some can lead to potentially deadly E. coli in food if proper sanitation procedures are not followed.

The CDC also stresses that poor building maintenance — rather than the widespread presence of low-level bacteria — is the main culprit in Legionnaires’ outbreaks.

Legionella is naturally occurring and is present at low levels in water sources such as lakes and rivers. Therefore, it’s assumed by government officials that the bacteria makes its way into building systems. However, there’s no quantifiable data.

"We don’t actually have an exact number or even proportion," CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said in an interview.

State health departments report annual incidents of Legionnaires’ cases to the CDC. There were 6,000 cases reported nationwide in 2015. An estimated 9 to 10 percent of all cases result in death, Nordlund said, though the agency doesn’t ask states to report numbers of deaths from the disease.

In 2015, the city of Chicago advised building owners to check and clean water supply systems to guard against the spread of Legionnaires.

"Legionella bacteria are present at low levels in many water systems," the city letter stated. "Background levels of Legionella are not known to be a significant risk when associated with proper water quality management of water systems."

Northwestern Memorial Hospital spokesman Christopher King confirmed Rauner’s claim that two patients treated at the hospital within the past six months tested positive for Legionella. The hospital is working with state health officials and conducting its own review "to determine if these two cases are related," he said, declining to comment further.

Our ruling

Rauner says news reports about his administration’s response to recurring incidents of Legionnaires’ disease at the Illinois Veterans’ Home in Quincy leave out a key part of the story: "The Legionella bacteria is in most water systems in Illinois."

The governor’s statement glosses over the reality that any such contamination is likely present at low and non-threatening levels. The use of the word "most" is also questionable since there’s no real quantifiable evidence. The CDC avoids quantifying the presence of the bacteria, which thrives on slime in poorly maintained internal water systems.

The governor has a point that the bacteria lurks in a number of water systems. But his statement makes an unprovable claim about the extent of the contamination.

The governor’s claim is overbroad and lacking in context. We rate it Half True.      

Our Sources

Q&A: Gov. Rauner talks infrastructure, politics and his plans for 2018, The Herald-News, January 3, 2018

Surviving War, But Not The Veterans’ Home, WBEZ, December 12, 2017

‘Beginning Of An Epidemic’: Email Shows State Waited 6 Days To Publicize Legionnaires’ Outbreak, WBEZ, December 20, 2017

Email, Rauner spokeswoman Rachel Bold, January 5

Interview, Erik Olson, Natural Resources Defense Council, January 9, 2018

Email, Northwestern hospital spokesman Christopher King, January 9, 2018

Interview CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund, January 10, 2018

Legionella | Causes and Transmission, CDC

Legionnaires’ Disease, CDC

City of Chicago letter to building owners, November 2015 (PDF)

OSHA technical guide

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Rauner says 'Legionella bacteria is in most water systems in Illinois'

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