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Legionella water testing

Each month, we share new results from our ongoing water tests for Legionella. Our goal is simple: to let you know what we're doing—and how we're doing—in controlling Legionella at VA Pittsburgh.

What is Legionella?

Legionella is a bacterium found naturally in the environment. Legionella pneumophila, which causes Legionella pneumonia, is the primary human pathogenic bacterium within the larger group of bacteria.

Almost all natural water sources have Legionella. Medical facilities across the country regularly monitor, find, and treat Legionella in their water systems.

Legionella pneumonia: symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment

Symptoms

Legionella pneumonia is a form of pneumonia. Common symptoms include:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • High fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Headaches

Diagnosis and treatment

After we diagnose a patient with pneumonia, we conduct a urinary antigen test to check for Legionella pneumonia. A urinary antigen test is simple and quick, and it detects Legionella pneumonia in most cases. 

Whenever possible, we also collect a sputum sample (a mixture of saliva and mucus) and culture it in on special media in the lab. If a patient has Legionella pneumonia, their culture can grow Legionella bacteria. This test produces results more slowly (as the culture needs time to grow), but it can help us link a patient's infection to an environmental source. Most cases of Legionella pneumonia can be successfully treated with common antibiotics.

At-risk populations

Generally speaking, a person cannot get Legionella pneumonia just by drinking water. To be infected, they must breathe in mist or vapors containing the bacteria. In addition, most healthy people do not become infected after exposure to Legionella, and Legionella pneumonia is not transmitted from person to person.

Some people can fall ill after breathing in the Legionella bacteria. Those at higher risk of getting sick are:

  • People age 50 or older
  • Current or former smokers
  • People with chronic lung diseases (such as COPD or emphysema)
  • People with weakened immune systems
  • People who take drugs that suppress their immune systems 

Up to 18,000 hospitalized cases of Legionella pneumonia occur in the United States each year. Many cases go unreported because this disease is difficult to distinguish from other forms of pneumonia.

How VAPHS is addressing Legionella 

To prevent Legionella growth, we are treating the water systems at both campuses with continuous chlorine drips (chlorine, at certain concentrations, can kill the bacteria). This water is absolutely safe to drink — the chlorine concentrations in our systems are 2ppm (which is well below the Environmental Protection Agency’s  limit of 4ppm). The chlorine does not affect the taste of the water. 

We’ve also installed specialized mixing valves and instantaneous hot water heaters in our plumbing systems at both campuses. These enhancements enable us to safely keep the water in our pipes circulating at a warmer temperature—140 degrees Fahrenheit—to suppress the growth of Legionella.

In addition, we can now superheat this water to quickly kill bacteria as necessary while maintaining cooler, safe temperatures at the tap to prevent people from scalding themselves.

Finally, we have replaced all drinking fountains with bubbler systems, which are easier than the fountains to clean and maintain.

For more information

If you have questions about Legionella pneumonia, please discuss them with your VA provider.

If you have questions about our ongoing water system enhancements, call our water hotline at 412-360-1199

The hotline is staffed from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. every weekday (except federal holidays), and is open to the public. During off hours and on holidays, you may leave a voicemail — we’ll return your call on the next business day.

Water test results

*All Veterans suspected of pneumonia are tested for Legionella via both a urine antigen test and a sputum culture.

** As of May 21, 2019

Year Veterans Tested for Legionella Pneumonia* Veterans Diagnosed with Legionella Pneumonia Legionella Pneumonia Definitely Acquired at VA Pittsburgh
Year 2013 Veterans Tested for Legionella Pneumonia* 516 Veterans Diagnosed with Legionella Pneumonia 9 Legionella Pneumonia Definitely Acquired at VA Pittsburgh None
Year 2014 Veterans Tested for Legionella Pneumonia* 523 Veterans Diagnosed with Legionella Pneumonia 1 Legionella Pneumonia Definitely Acquired at VA Pittsburgh None
Year 2015 Veterans Tested for Legionella Pneumonia* 518 Veterans Diagnosed with Legionella Pneumonia 6 Legionella Pneumonia Definitely Acquired at VA Pittsburgh None
Year 2016 Veterans Tested for Legionella Pneumonia* 586 Veterans Diagnosed with Legionella Pneumonia 3 Legionella Pneumonia Definitely Acquired at VA Pittsburgh None
Year 2017 Veterans Tested for Legionella Pneumonia* 496 Veterans Diagnosed with Legionella Pneumonia 2 Legionella Pneumonia Definitely Acquired at VA Pittsburgh None
Year 2018 Veterans Tested for Legionella Pneumonia* 581 Veterans Diagnosed with Legionella Pneumonia 5 Legionella Pneumonia Definitely Acquired at VA Pittsburgh None
Year 2019** Veterans Tested for Legionella Pneumonia* 207 Veterans Diagnosed with Legionella Pneumonia None Legionella Pneumonia Definitely Acquired at VA Pittsburgh None
Year Water Samples Tested Samples Positive for Legionella Positivity Rate
Year 2013 Water Samples Tested 4525 Samples Positive for Legionella 80 Positivity Rate 1.8%
Year 2014 Water Samples Tested 1636 Samples Positive for Legionella 47 Positivity Rate 2.9%
Year 2015 Water Samples Tested 2154 Samples Positive for Legionella 20 Positivity Rate 0.97%
Year 2016 Water Samples Tested 1774 Samples Positive for Legionella 22 Positivity Rate 1.2%
Year 2017 Water Samples Tested 1689 Samples Positive for Legionella 15 Positivity Rate 0.9%
Year 2018 Water Samples Tested 1420 Samples Positive for Legionella 14 Positivity Rate 1%
Year 2019** Water Samples Tested 1259 Samples Positive for Legionella 2 Positivity Rate 0.2%
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