Reporting Susan Koeppen
PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Federal officials now say five people may have died from Legionnaires’ disease at Pittsburgh VA hospitals, but it’s not just hospitals where people are at risk of the Legionella bacteria.
Experts say Legionella can be found in plenty of places.
Last year, three people died after contracting Legionnaires’ from a decorative fountain at a JW Marriott in Chicago. In 2011, health officials found the bacteria in a hot tub at the Playboy Mansion after more than 100 people got sick.
Believe it or not, people can even get Legionnaires’ disease right in their own homes.
Home inspector Dan Howard is an expert in finding problems with homes — including the presence of dangerous bacteria like Legionella. He says most people are unaware that Legionella can linger in homes.
KDKA-TV met up with Howard as he tested the water of Leola and John Birty, a couple in their 80s. They were worried about their health and their home after hearing so many stories about Legionnaire’s disease recently.
“You think your home is clean and I’ve just never thought that anything like that could be in your home,” says Leola Birty.
The CDC estimates between 8,000 and 18,000 people in the United States are hospitalized with Legionnaires’ disease each year.
Most infected people will develop pneumonia, but many cases go undiagnosed and unreported.
“An elderly person living alone gets pneumonia we don’t think twice about it. They were old, they were expected to get it, but you need to think about the cause,” says Howard.
The source of Legionella in your home could be your hot water tank if it’s turned down too low. The bacteria thrive in warm water.
How do you get infected? The contaminated water passes through your shower and you breathe in the droplets.
Those at risk of getting sick tend to be older, current or former smokers and those with a weakened immune system. Howard says the best way to protect yourself from Legionnaires’ disease in your home is to make sure your water tank is set high enough to ward off the bacteria.
“We want it to be at least 120 degrees,” Howard said.
After waiting five days, Leola and John Birty finally got their test results back. They didn’t have legionella, but they did have mold. Something they plan to clean up right away.
Experts say only about five percent of people who come in contact with Legionella get sick.