Moncton calls for cooling tower regulations after legionnaires' outbreak

Moncton's mayor is calling on the province to implement a cooling tower registry and regulations following an outbreak of legionnaires' disease in the city over the summer.

Dawn Arnold sent a letter last month to New Brunswick's health minister and the chief medical officer of health calling for a registry and compliance monitoring. It could help speed up the detection of the source of future outbreaks and ensure proper maintenance is done to try to prevent outbreaks from occurring, she says in the letter Oct. 31.

Since there's no registry in the province, the Department of Health sought Moncton's help to find locations with cooling towers in the city during the outbreak this summer that sickened 16 people with the severe form of pneumonia.

"Not having an inventory also caused delays in obtaining valuable information required to pinpoint the source of the legionella," Arnold wrote.

Pierre Fournier/CBC News

Ted Flemming, the health minister, has yet to respond to Arnold's letter. Flemming did not provide an interview. In a statement, a spokesperson for the Health Department said it is exploring the idea of a registry. 

The letter was included in a series of documents released to CBC News this week following a right to information request. The 71-pages black out the specific site of the outbreak as well as references to sites tested. The city says the information was blacked out as it could reveal information provided to the city in confidence. 

Cooling towers are often linked to legionnaires' outbreaks as they can serve as a breeding ground for the bacteria when not properly maintained. Quebec implemented a registry after a 2012 outbreak. New York also implemented a registry after a 2015 outbreak, Arnold noted.

The Moncton outbreak was announced by provincial health officials on Aug. 1 when seven people were sick. The figure grew to 16 before the outbreak was declared over Sept. 10.

Public Health reported four other legionnaires' cases in the Moncton region in November but has said they aren't connected to the earlier outbreak.

The province has refused to release the specific source of the summer outbreak, only saying it was in "western Moncton." The city emails are more specific. 

"It is our understanding from (the Health Department) that the cases are isolated within the Moncton Industrial Development area and is not a city-wide issue," a city spokesperson wrote in an email to city councillors Aug. 1. The industrial park is in western Moncton. 

Legionella bacteria is naturally present in many waterways, but can become a problem in man-made systems like spas, showers or cooling towers. Mist containing the legionella bacteria can become airborne. Once inhaled, it can cause the illness. 

CBC

Emails show city staff were involved in going to locations as part of the testing for the bacteria.

"We worked extensively today and provided them all potential buildings that may have water cooling towers, maps were developed as well as a database of the properties with contact info," a city staff member wrote in an Aug. 2 email to other staff. 

The maps and database were not released by the city to CBC.

The way this info is coming to us is not at all transparent! Who are we trying to protect?  - Paulette Thériault, city councillor

Fire Chief Conrad Landry weighed in at one point on what protective masks should be worn to avoid becoming sick while performing inspections.

Because of the city's role with the testing, it's clear multiple city staff knew the location of the outbreak. One staff member emailed a senior manager Aug. 1 to say Public Health had told her the area impacted. The area has been blacked out in documents released by the city. 

Another email Aug. 9 shows that the province told the city it had completed all testing except at one location, which was scheduled for Aug. 12. A document released to CBC News by the Health Department indicates testing was carried out at six locations between Aug. 6 and Aug. 12.

Pierre Fournier/CBC

The province blacked out the locations tested in a document released to CBC last month, citing the potential financial impact on the locations. 

The Moncton emails reveal frustration at information being withheld from elected officials and the public by the province and city staff.

"This is a serious issue and the least that we should know is whether the situation is being contained in one area," Coun. Paulette Thériault wrote to staff Aug. 7. "The way this info is coming to us is not at all transparent! Who are we trying to protect?"

City of Moncton

Thériault said in an interview she still believes more information should be released.  

"As an elected official, and I've said this before, we're there to protect our citizens," Thériault said. "I am certainly not interested in anything that has to do with protecting someone because it's a financial situation." 

She's pleased the mayor sent the letter to the province.

An Aug. 2 email shows just after the outbreak was announced, the Health Department asked the city if it could use its emergency alert system to broadcast a message to the affected area about the outbreak. 

The city uses Sentinel, a technology that allows the city to issue texts, recorded messages and emails to people within a certain area who have signed up for the service.

Ultimately, the emails show the province decided not to use the Sentinel system.