Can Your Plumbing System Really Cause Legionnaires Disease?

It sounds like a disease you would get after trekking for miles through a jungle. In reality, Legionnaires disease is a serious lung infection that can be passed to you or your family members through the use of infected water. Here's what you need to know to keep the dangerous bacteria that causes the disease out of your home.

Water Heaters, Plumbing, and Legionnaires Disease

Legionnaires disease is caused by bacteria called Legionella. Like many of its ilk, it is ever-present in small quantities in soil and water. In fact, most people come in contact with the bacteria on a daily basis. However, it doesn't turn into a problem until it begins multiplying and becomes aerosolized in water via steam, mist, or droplets. When a person breathes this infected water, the bacteria can take root in the lungs, causing them to suffer a pneumonia-like infection.

Legionella typically enters the home via contaminated water. For instance, if contaminated soil falls into your well, the bacteria can leech into the water and get sucked into your water tank when it fills up. It can also live in the biofilm in pipes. So even if you fully empty your water tank, the bacteria can still find its way back into your home if you're not careful.

Flowing water and high temperatures are two things that can prevent Legionella from breeding. The bacteria prefer temperatures ranging between 55 degrees and 133 degrees Fahrenheit. Water that is continuously flowing makes it difficult for the bacteria to establish colonies, which is why you're more likely to find it in stagnant water.

Unfortunately, the plumbing in homes provides the perfect living space for this bacterium. Legionella cannot survive in high temperature water and will die in water set above 133 degrees. However, homeowners typically keep the temperature of their water heaters below 120 degrees Fahrenheit for safety reasons. At 120 degrees, hot water can cause second and third degree burns in 5 minutes. At 140 degrees, water can burn in 5 seconds.

Second, household water is not used on a continuous basis. Oftentimes, this causes water in the pipes to sit for hours and sometimes days at a time, giving the bacteria an opportunity to make a home for themselves.

Detecting Legionella Bacteria

The only way to determine if your water is infected with Legionella is to test it. You can find water testing kits online or at home improvement stores. The testing kit usually contains a meter or test strip similar to a pregnancy test that will turn a different color if it detects Legionella in the sample. Another option is to send a sample of your water to a local testing facility.

A third, albeit unfortunate, way to tell if this bacteria is creeping around your pipes is if someone in your home is sickened with Legionnaires disease. The person will begin exhibiting symptoms within two to ten days after being exposed to the bacteria.

Symptoms generally mimic those associated with the flu and may include:

  • Chills
  • High fever (over 104 degrees)
  • Muscle pain and headaches
  • Cough
  • Chest pain
  • Gastrointestinal distress (vomiting, diarrhea)
  • Neurological problems such as confusion

Legionnaires can be fatal if not treated properly, especially for immunosuppresed individuals. It's critical to seek medical care as soon as symptoms begin showing.

Killing Legionella Bacteria

So far, the best way to kill Legionella bacteria is by burning it to death with high temperature water. Chlorine has been shown to kill this bacterium. However, it would require you to use an amount 10,000 times stronger than is considered safe.

The easiest way to eliminate Legionella is to keep the temperature on your water heater above 133 degrees at all times. As mentioned before, though, this can be dangerous, particularly if there are children, mentally incapacitated people, or elderly persons living in the home. However, having a plumber install anti-scald devices on sinks and baths can help mitigate this issue.

Alternatively, you can sterilize the water and plumbing pipes in your home on a regular basis. Increase the temperature on your water heater to 150 degrees (Legionella will die within a few minutes at this temperature). Once the water has become heated to the temperature, turn on all the faucets in the home for 10 to 15 minutes to flush the pipes. Afterwards, be certain to turn the temperature back to the normal level. As noted previously, the bacteria can hide in biofilm and may find its way back into the water. Therefore, you'll need to repeat this procedure at least once per month or so.

For other ways to keep Legionella bacteria out of your home, contact a plumber with experience in this area. You can learn more about local plumbing services over at this website