New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

WNYC: New York Public Radio City Council Considering Bill Updating Flawed Legionnaires' Law by Sean Carlson and Gwenne Hogan

City Council Considering Bill Updating Flawed Legionnaires' Law


The full City Council is expected to vote later this week on a bill to toughen a law combatting the rising numbers of Legionnaires' disease cases in New York City.

That law, passed in the wake of the deadliest outbreak of the disease in New York's history in 2015, was producing mixed results. WNYC reported last summer that about 20 percent of all owners of cooling towers — the large, boxy structures on rooftops that help regulate air conditioning — weren't having them inspected regularly, as was required by the new law. Even when they were issued fines and summonses.

A new analysis from Councilman Ben Kallos' office suggests the situation has gotten worse since WNYC's report was published. According to the latest data available from the state, Kallos found around 44 percent of landlords with cooling towers haven't had them inspected since 2017 or earlier. 

"Landlords who should be doing everything they can to protect their tenants and their neighbors may not be," Kallos said. "They're putting everyone's lives on the line."

Dirty cooling towers can become fertile breeding ground for the potentially legal legionella bacteria during warmer months. The bacteria can then spread through the air and sicken people who breath it in, sometimes blocks away from the site of a cooling tower. That's what happened in the South Bronx in 2015, where a single cool tower infected with legionella lead to 138 cases of the disease and 16 deaths.

Kallos' legislation, which was passed by the council's Committee on Housing and Buildings Monday, would require landlords to report inspections of their cooling towers soon after they happen to the city's Health Department directly. The city would then make that information public. The bill would make it easier for health inspectors to identify problem buildings, Kallos said, as they currently have to rely on the state's data can be outdated.

The bill would also send regular reminders to cooling tower owners to have their equipment inspected.

"There was a Legionnaires' cluster in my neighborhood. Somebody died. Six people got sick," said Councilman Kallos, referring to a 2017 outbreak of the disease. "My hope is, with these 90-day inspections actually happening no one has to get sick or even die from Legionnaires' ever again."

The number of cases of Legionnaires' disease has been on the rise over the last decade, up to 435 cases in 2017, the most recent year that data is available, according to a Health Department report. The airborne disease tends to strike vulnerable populations the hardest; elderly New Yorkers with other health conditions and low income neighborhoods.


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