Chlorine treatments meant to stop dangerous bacteria that can lead to Legionnaires’ disease are eating away metal pipes across the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare’s plumbing system, threatening long-term damage that could cost millions to correct, an independent evaluation shows.

Premature corrosion at VA campuses in Oakland and O’Hara eventually could force exorbitant bills for plumbing repairs and slash the pipes’ lifespan by years, according to disinfection and engineering experts briefed on the matter. A 57-page analysis obtained by the Tribune-Review blames high chlorination for pitted pipes and outright failures found in the water distribution system, where workers report occasional dark discharge from faucets.

“This is a hospital, and we are afraid to drink the water,” said Colleen Evans, a registered nurse and executive vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2028. The union represents about 2,500 VA Pittsburgh workers.

VA officials said chlorination, adopted in 2013, has proven effective in containing Legionella bacteria that led to the deaths of at least six VA Pittsburgh patients and sickened at least 16 others in 2011 and 2012.

“Our real goal is patient safety. A trade-off of a little more maintenance and repair is worth it if we’re saving lives,” said Dr. Brooke Decker, infection prevention director for the VA Pittsburgh, who acknowledged some darkened tap water might be related to the chlorine treatments.

The analysis released last May by Cyrus Rice Water Consultants in Coraopolis showed chlorine levels up to five parts per million, or 20 percent higher than limits for drinking water set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

VA officials said the levels have since eased up, complying with drinking water standards and maintaining chlorine low enough that it poses no health risks.
Decker said the last Legionnaires’ case linked to the VA Pittsburgh was in 2012, before the health system replaced its less corrosive copper-silver ionization technology with chlorination to stave off the waterborne bacteria.

Workers block off affected spigots and pass out bottled water if chlorine levels exceed standard ranges, Decker said.

The VA did not specify the cost of chlorine-related plumbing damage but reported spending $11.7 million in 2013 on anti-Legionella upgrades, including chlorination equipment in Oakland and O’Hara. Water filters, chemicals, routine testing and related Legionella-prevention expenses — excluding pipe repairs — totaled about $632,000 in 2014, according to the VA.

The agency did not quantify the volume of chlorine-related plumbing problems, although a facilities manager said the issues are concentrated around 19 injection points for the chlorine.

It’s very clear in multiple publications that these negative consequences are associated with ongoing use of chlorine,” said Janet Stout, a former VA Pittsburgh worker, a microbiologist and president of the Special Pathogens Lab,Uptown.