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They Found Legionella Where?

If you’re at all familiar with Legionnaires’ disease, you probably associate it with heating and air conditioning systems, hot tubs and other environments where warmth and moisture create a breeding ground.  But now, researchers have found Legionella, the bacteria responsible for the disease, in windshield washer fluid.

Legionnaires’ disease first came to light in 1976 when a previously unknown illness killed 34 people and sickened another 200 following an American Legion convention in Philadelphia.  The source was traced to the cooling towers of the hotel’s air conditioning system, and the bacterium was thus named for the convention attendees.  Regardless of the source, you are only at risk of exposure to Legionella from contaminated mist in the air—not through personal contact.

Now, researchers in Arizona have discovered Legionella in the windshield washer fluid reservoirs of multiple vehicles and school buses.  This may provide a path to resolving previously unexplained illnesses, as drivers and occupants may inadvertently inhale atomized droplets of the fluid. This fluid sits in a stagnant, warm environment – the fluid reservoir – allowing bacteria growth. 

How great is the risk? The discovery is very recent and research is incomplete, but first be aware that most of those exposed to Legionella do not become sick.  The people most at risk are smokers, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.  Those infected may develop Legionnaires’ disease, which has flu-like symptoms and a high fever, or Pontiac fever, a milder version of the illness. Unlike Pontiac fever, which usually resolves without medical intervention, Legionnaires’ disease should be treated with antibiotics at the onset of symptoms. A delay in treatment can lead to prolonged hospitalizations, lung failure or even death. 

Also, it is important to note that the research was conducted in Arizona, where windshield washer fluid typically does not require a de-icing ingredient.  Methanol is often added to washer fluid to prevent freezing, and appears to inhibit the growth of the bacteria.  Predictably, the incidence of Legionella in the Arizona study was higher in the summer than in winter months.

Those who made the discovery say more research is needed before any substantial recommendations can be made, but the best advice for now would seem to be trying not to inhale while washer fluid is being sprayed.  Make sure the fluid in your vehicle contains methanol, and never use plain water.

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