Legionella Issues Continue to Affect New Jersey Water Supply: Immediate Action to Prevent Legionnaires’ Disease is Needed

The Alliance to Prevent Legionnaires’ Disease (APLD) remains concerned about the continued detection of legionella bacteria in the water system operated by Trenton Water Works. The Alliance calls on New Jersey officials to address the systemic conditions in the public distribution system that contribute to this alarming problem.

According to the New Jersey Department of Health, “legionella bacteria was identified in water samples collected from more than half of 30 homes within several municipalities served by Trenton Water Works.” This includes homes sampled in Trenton, Ewing, and parts of Lawrence and Hopewell Township served by Trenton Water Works.  This study follows the release of an investigation of homes in Hamilton Township earlier this summer, which similarly found legionella bacteria in more than 50% of the sampled homes.

Both investigations are consistent with a recent EPA study finding approximately 50% of the household taps tested positive for legionella.  The current issues within the Trenton Water Works water supply and the many cases and tragic deaths reported are not unique.  Over the last few years, at least three dozen cases and six deaths attributed to separate clusters of Legionnaires’ disease were reported throughout Union County.  Multiple cases of the disease and the presence of legionella bacteria in the water supply were also reported in Newark, and West Orange among many others reported throughout the state. New Jersey averages about 350 cases of Legionnaires’ disease per year and sadly about 10% of those cases are fatal.

“We need to focus on legionella reduction plans that will allow us to address the root cause that drives the individual, sporadic cases, which comprise 96% of all Legionnaires’ diagnoses, like we’ve seen in New Jersey in recent years,” said APLD Board Member and Director of Integrated Resource Management, Inc. Bob Bowcock. “We must evolve beyond narrowly focused policies that have done nothing to bring down rates and begin to adopt comprehensive responses, including investigations into all cases of the disease and reporting mechanisms for our public water systems that account for source water changes, water main breaks, service interruptions, construction, heavy rainfall, and disinfectant levels – all of which can lead to an increased presence of this bacteria entering our homes.”

The tragic cases of Legionnaires’ disease and the legionella bacteria found in water supplies throughout New Jersey make it clear that we must undertake a robust review of all sources of legionella and implement a comprehensive approach that includes effective upstream water management to control legionella bacteria before it is delivered to residents. The Alliance is urging lawmakers to swiftly pass pending legislation S1006/A2836 (Sen. Ruiz/Asw. Speight), which would more effectively prevent Legionnaires’ disease cases by, among other important protections, requiring public water systems to minimize the growth and transmission of legionella bacteria within the system, to prevent it from ever entering our homes.

“The American family uses an average of 300 gallons of water a day in their homes, where they shower drink, wash, and play in water,” said APLD Director of Technology and Science Daryn Cline. “In addition, our most vulnerable immune compromised populations tend to be significantly more homebound with daily risk of exposure. And, our most at-risk residents are often located in some of the oldest neighborhoods with the most dilapidated and least reliable water infrastructure more prone to bacterial development.”

The failures in water distribution system management have become more apparent as our infrastructure grows older, as evidenced by the significant uptick in cases over the last 15 years.  The Alliance calls for a swift improvement of New Jersey’s water management and investigation in order to improve public health, and ultimately reduce the human and financial costs associated with legionella bacteria in our water supply.