Experts: Don’t drink hospital water

May 10, 2007 by Karl B. Hille, The Examiner

BALTIMORE (Map, News) – What you don’t know about your hospital’s water supply could kill you. Maryland health officials put guidelines in place for Legionella testing in hospital water supplies six years ago, but there is no enforcement component, and the state does not know who is complying, health officials told The Examiner on Wednesday.

Maryland General Hospital in Baltimore identified a colony of the bacteria in its water supply in March and notified patients.

“Maryland General is one of the first hospitals that was following the Maryland state guidelines and conducting proactive testing,” said microbiologist Janet Stout of the University of Pittsburgh, an expert in water-borne pathogens who has communicated with Maryland General about its water supply.

“They are doing the monitoring for Legionella. They are being proactive, and they are being unfairly criticized for it.”

Officials from Maryland General did not return calls for comment.

Maryland guidelines call for routine monitoring in all hospitals throughout the state. Allegheny County, Pa., and New York state also have proactive guidelines, but only New York provides citations and penalties for hospitals that don’t comply.

Federal guidelines call for monitoring only after infections are identified.

“I think the [state] guidelines have been reasonably effective,” said Dr. Glenn Morris, professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “We have seen a reduction in the number of cases of hospital-acquired Legionella.”

He said Maryland has not published information on which hospitals are complying but plans to do so in the next few years.

Legionella bacteria causes Legionnaires’ disease, which has a nearly 50 percent death rate when picked up in a hospital setting, Stout said.

A type of pneumonia that hospitalizes between 8,000 and 18,000 people in the United States each year, Legionella is usually more active in the summer and early fall, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms include a high fever, chills and a cough, but muscle aches and headaches can also be present.

Sources of infection in hospitals include some of the very tools promoted for keeping patients healthy, Stout said, such as sinks, showers, sensor faucets and spray devices for patients in burn units.

Aerosolized bacteria can be inhaled, speeding infections. Ice machines, decorative fountains and medical equipment, such as ventilators and humidifiers, also can spread the disease, she said.

Reprinted by permission from The Examiner