Latest telework worry: Empty federal buildings raise risk of Legionnaires’ disease

The water supply in at least six federal government buildings is contaminated with the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, and the problem may be even more widespread, according to the inspector general who oversees U.S. properties.

One of the buildings is a work site for thousands of employees, one is a post office in Chicago, and one contains a day-care center.

Investigators said one culprit is the pandemic and telework policies, which left buildings operating at less than capacity. Fewer people means less water being flushed through the pipes, creating a stagnant environment where Legionella bacteria can proliferate.

The water supply in six buildings, all of them open to the public, tested positive for Legionella this summer.

Two of them are in Chicago; one is in Lewiston, New York; one in North Platte, Nebraska; one in Ogden, Utah and one in Detroit, Michigan. They are operated by the General Services Administration’s Public Buildings Service, which acts as Uncle Sam’s landlord.

But the audit said GSA doesn’t require testing in the 5,000 buildings that the agency leases, and while it does have a protocol for testing non-potable water in government-owned buildings, it doesn’t test in potable water systems.

“PBS must take immediate action to address the risk of Legionella contamination in water systems across its owned and leased buildings. In addressing this issue, PBS must improve its testing requirements for Legionella and strengthen contract and lease oversight,” the inspector general said.

The audit labeled the issue “a significant challenge.”

GSA, in a statement, said it is working on the matter.

“Consistent with the Office of Inspector General’s findings, GSA is now increasing water flushing and testing plans across our large facilities and is also increasing testing requirements for water quality while strengthening contract and lease oversight,” the agency said.

In cases where buildings are flagged for Legionella, GSA said it communicates with tenants and, where drinking water is affected, it blocks water fountains and supplies bottled water.

Legionnaires’ disease is contracted by breathing in droplets of water contaminated with the bacteria. The disease is fatal in about 10% of people infected.

The buildings that tested positive are the port of entry in Lewiston; the North Platte Federal Building; the John C. Kluczynski Federal Building and the U.S. Post Office in the Loop in Chicago; the IRS service center in Ogden, Utah; and the 985 Michigan Avenue Federal Building in Detroit.

The IRS facility in Ogden employs thousands of people.

Legionella was first detected in “slightly elevated levels” in two water fountains in the building in July. GSA issued a notice saying it had closed the fountains and flushed the plumbing.

In August, a new alert said Legionella had been detected in the child care center’s water dispensers, sinks and a refrigerator water line,

In the Nebraska building, Legionella was detected in a staff lounge, multiple break rooms and a bathroom, investigators said.

The Detroit building had elevated Legionella levels in its rooftop cooling tower, kitchenettes and a holding facility.

One of the Chicago buildings also reported elevated levels in a rooftop tank in an Aug. 3 test. A notice was sent to tenants on Aug. 21. An Aug. 31 test came back clean.

In a separate report this week, the Government Accountability Office ( said a military installation had to shut down a barracks because of Legionella bacteria.

Military officials said they caught that situation because they were required to test for Legionella, since those barracks housed healthcare patients. They told the GAO they didn’t test water in other barracks because they aren’t required to do it.

The GAO didn’t guess at the reasons for the barracks issue, but the inspector general cited fewer people using the buildings as a source of the problem.

“The elevated levels of Legionella described above have occurred at a time of reduced building occupancy across the federal government,” investigators said, citing GAO data that found telework policies have emptied agency buildings.

Without more water running through the system, the disinfectants used to control Legionella and other bacteria degrade. And when hot water stagnates, it can cool enough to create better growing conditions for the bacteria, the inspector general said.

“In these conditions, building occupants face an increased risk of exposure to Legionella through inhaling mists from water fountains or running faucets. The prevalence of these conditions increases the likelihood that GSA-controlled buildings may be contaminated with Legionella,” the alert warned.

Federal telework policies are increasingly being challenged by both Democrats and Republicans who wonder if employees are putting in the time while working remotely, and who want the workers back in city centers to help boost commerce.

Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican, asked agency inspectors general to calculate how much money can be saved by consolidating office space workers are no longer using.

She also asked them to study whether workers are claiming higher locality pay for major metropolitan areas even though they now telework from lower-cost areas.

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