May 16, 2016
By Adam Smeltz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

As many as 18,000 people nationwide end up hospitalized each year with Legionnaires’ disease, a nasty type of pneumonia that spreads through waterborne Legionella bacteria. Hundreds of those patients die.

But that doesn’t have tobe the case, said Bill Pearson, a water treatment executive who joined the Uptown-based Special Pathogens Laboratory this spring as senior vice president of business development. The firm is angling to stop the disease, in large part by controlling Legionella that lurk in indoor pipes.

“I’ve always been an advocate that Legionnaires’ disease is preventable. That is the exact philosophy, the exact mission statement of Special Pathogens Lab,” said Mr. Pearson, 67, of Wilmington, N.C. He remains based there but will spend about a week each month in Pittsburgh, where researchers Janet E. Stout and Victor L. Yu established SPL as a private agency in 2007.

While the group has long helped hospitals and other clients monitor and prevent bacteria in their plumbing, Ms. Stout said the dangers of Legionella are now gaining more attention. Part of that stems from high-profile Legionnaires’ outbreaks, including one in the South Bronx that killed 12 people in 2015. Investigators tied at least six deaths to an earlier outbreak in the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System in 2011 and 2012.

Also drumming up awareness is a voluntary Legionella guideline that an engineering association approved last year. Standard 188 from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers encourages Legionella risk management for a variety of buildings, including retirement homes and health clinics. Recognized prevention methods include copper-silver ionization treatments, monochloramine and other disinfectants.

“The United States finally caught up with the rest of the world in having a standard for the prevention of Legionnaires’ disease,” said Ms. Stout, who served with Mr. Pearson on a panel that developed the guideline. She predicted the standard, 10 years in the making, could make its way into mandatory building codes. Portions appear already in standards for New York City.
For Mr. Pearson, who just finished a 40-year career at Southeastern Laboratories Inc. in Goldsboro, N.C., joining SPL means a chance to educate water treatment companies about the new guideline. 

“Now we have the tools out there to say, ‘Let’s look at our man-built water systems that have the potential to harbor Legionella and implement a water-management system.’ That’s the essence” of the standard, Mr. Pearson said. “All of this is to make the goal of ending Legionnaires’ disease.”