Legionella spotted in water tests at Seaholm

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published November 19, 2020

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BIRMINGHAM — Birmingham Public Schools reported last week that a strain of Legionella bacteria was found in the pipes of Ernest W. Seaholm High School.

Legionella bacteria, specifically the pneumophilia species and serogroups of the germ, can cause a dangerous type of pneumonia called Legionnaire’s Disease in those exposed, particularly those in high-risk groups, like people age 50 and older.

The type of bacteria found in the school’s water is known as A. Legionella, and according to the Oakland County Health Division, it is not commonly associated with large outbreaks of illness.

“Legionella is a naturally occurring bacteria in freshwater systems that really becomes a problem for people when it becomes colonized in buildings with more complex water systems,” said Mark Hansell, the chief of environmental health programs with the Oakland County Health Division.

The issue was discovered during a voluntary test performed by Birmingham Public Schools building personnel. BPS Communications Director Anne Cron said former Superintendent Dan Nerad instituted a practice of testing all water sources in the district regularly, not just ones required by the state, shortly after the Flint water crisis was made known.

“This can occur when water isn’t used as frequently, and with the long closures of our buildings (due to the COVID-19 shutdown) we understand how it occurred,” reads a statement that went home to BPS families. “While we did run water during our closures, our water systems were used far less than when we are in session.”

Hansell said the Health Division became involved when Birmingham Public Schools Interim Superintendent Rachel Feder reached out and asked the agency to review their abnormal water samples.

“In this case, it appears that BPS went above and beyond protocols to bring their buildings back online after the long absences after the pandemic,” he said.

The district is working to remediate the bacteria while students are out of the building doing at-home virtual instruction because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who do enter the building, though, should feel safe doing so, administrators said.

“People are infected by inhaling aerosols containing Legionella bacteria. Hand washing is allowed and encouraged. Wearing a mask during hand washing or tasks with running water is recommended for further safety,” the district’s statement reads. “BPS has covered all drinking fountains and stopped the use of showers in our facilities that would carry aerosols containing Legionella bacteria. Bottled water has been provided.”

Birmingham Public Schools plans to fully remediate the bacteria, including high-velocity flushing all plumbing to move stagnated water, retesting, and if necessary, administering a secondary treatment via an injected biocide into the water system.