Bacterial disease spreads near campus

By Jake Tiger

MERCER County towns have reported two deaths and seven total cases of a pneumonia-like sickness known as Legionnaires’ disease, with Lawrenceville, New Jersey, sitting just outside of the affected area.

Since December 2021, confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease have surfaced in nearby Trenton, Ewing, Hamilton and Lawrence, all of which are served by Trenton Water Works (TWW) — the source of the contamination, according to the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH).

According to the CDC, Legionnaires’ disease is a “serious type of pneumonia” caused by Legionella bacteria that travel through water vapor, often from showers and large, complex air-conditioning units.

Symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease include coughing, shortness of breath, fever, muscle aches and headaches, according to the CDC.

As the weather heats up and Rider’s heating, venting and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are turned back on, Legionnaires’ disease will become a more prominent threat, with older people and those with compromised respiratory systems being primarily at risk, according to professor James Riggs.

“I think the risk of transmission is low based on the general demographic being a young, healthy community that isn’t exposed to too much air conditioning mist,” said Riggs, who specializes in microbiology and immunology. “I don’t think students are at risk as much as the old administrative people are. … There’s a higher concentration of older people breathing in the same air.”

However, Legionnaires’ disease popping up at Rider remains unlikely.

Walter Eddy, Rider’s executive director of facilities management, confirmed that the university does receive its water from TWW and is aware of the cases, but also stated that his department is taking steps to protect the community.

According to Michael Reca, vice president of facilities and university operations, the facilities department found out about the cases of Legionnaires’ disease in a news article during the summer of 2021. 

The department then contacted its environmental consultants who recommended that they flush their water systems regularly to ensure that water continues to circulate. If water is still for too long, bacteria like Legionella can cultivate on its surface.

“Every couple of weeks … we flush some of the hydrants around campus, and we’ll tell the custodians to run the showers,” said Reca. “That’s what keeps the water moving so it doesn’t build up.”

Reca stated that all of the water used in Rider’s HVAC systems is treated, greatly reducing the risk of contamination.

“I feel pretty good about what we’re doing. We try to stay a step ahead,” said Reca.

On March 27, NJDOH stated it began an investigation into the outbreak of the disease within the areas served by TWW and recommended that water heaters be set to 130 degrees Fahrenheit to kill any harmful bacteria that may be present.

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