Legionnaires’ Outbreak: Distillery at centre of bug probe shuts down

The North British Distillery has been shut down. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The North British Distillery has been shut down. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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THE North British Distillery in Gorgie was shut down today as it was placed at the centre of the probe into the legionnaires’ outbreak.

As the number of confirmed and suspected cases rose to 74, the Health and Safety Executive revealed it had served an improvement notice on the plant for alleged failure to control the legionella risk in one of its cooling towers.

The company said it had taken its towers offline and halted production as a precaution but insisted the move did not mean it had been identified as the source of the outbreak.

The distillery was among the first four sites to be identified as part of the investigation, which has since taken in the National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street.

At least two of the victims, including Bert Air, who died of the disease, worked on a building site in Gorgie Park Road, just a few hundred metres from the distillery.

There were reports yesterday that a third victim had also been a regular visitor to building sites in the area.

The Hearts victory parade also passed close to the site and it is known that several of those who have contracted the disease attended the event.

NHS Lothian said it was unable to provide details on the exact number of cases reported in the area around the distillery.

All three cooling towers on the distillery site were closed down yesterday and the company stopped distillation.

A Health and Safety Executive statement said: “The notice was served for a failure to devise and implement a sustained and effective biocide control programme in one cooling tower.

“HSE visited North British Distillery as part of an ongoing investigation into a legionnaires’ disease outbreak in south-west Edinburgh. Visits to other companies are ongoing.

“Issuing the improvement notice does not mean that this cooling tower has been identified as the source of the outbreak. The source may never be conclusively identified.

“HSE can issue an improvement notice if it believes that correct procedures are not being followed but there is not an immediate risk to workers or members of the public. ”

North British Distillers has a 21-day appeal period on the improvement notice, and has until June 29 to put appropriate controls in place.

A spokesman for the distillery said: “Our thoughts are clearly with the families of those affected by this situation.

“Ensuring the health and safety of our employees and the local community is our highest priority.

“On June 7 we voluntarily took our cooling towers offline until the legionella results from samples taken earlier this week are reported. While this precautionary operation is under way we have temporarily ceased distillation.

“Industrial cooling towers remain only one potential source of the infection and North British Distillery is one of a number of sites with such towers in Edinburgh.

“North British Distillery would like to reaffirm that the improvement notice issued by the HSE today does not mean that this cooling tower has been identified as the source of the outbreak.”

Around the area residents spoke of their concern. One man was seen walking down the street with a scarf wrapped around his nose and mouth, while other residents reported seeing groups of people wearing surgical masks.

Colin Riva, of Wheatfield Street, said: “I know two people who’ve got it. This is a life or death issue. You read these things in the paper but when it comes home to you it is scary.”

Rosemary Naughton, 47, of Smithfield Street, said one of her mother’s neighbours, a man in his late 50s, was being treated at hospital after contracting the disease. “If it’s been caused by that place I would be worried,” she added. “A man has died so of course I’m concerned.”

In all, six sites are known to have been examined by public health officials searching for the source of the outbreak.

Along with the distillery, the Macfarlan Smith chemical firm, Burton’s Biscuits and Aegon insurance were the first sites focused on in the probe.

Burton’s said its cooling towers were subject to weekly “dip slide” checks, the last one carried out on May 30 and the results of which did not indicate any problems.

The company said it also carried out monthly water/system checks, last done on May 10, again with no sign of any problems; a biannual clean and disinfection, last carried out on March 24; and a biennial risk assessment, last reviewed in September 2011.

Aegon has already said the towers at the firm’s offices are dosed continuously with chemicals and sampled three times a week. Samples taken last Friday and on Monday were clear.

Macfarlan Smith has said the last routine clean of its towers took place early last month and the last sample was taken on May 14 and was clear.

There were reports yesterday that Selex Galileo in Crewe Toll was also undergoing inspection, but the firm did not respond when contacted.

The HSE was unable to say when it had last inspected the five sites it is responsible for overseeing.

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said the number of suspected legionnaires’ cases had risen to 74, with 28 confirmed cases and 46 suspected. Of those, 14 are being treated in intensive care, and 30 are on general wards.

Ms Sturgeon said: “As expected, we have seen a rise in the number of cases associated with this outbreak. It is reassuring to see that ten people have been discharged from hospital.

“NHS Lothian continues to be very busy and contact has been made with other health boards in case capacity at other hospitals is required.

“The fact remains that the risk to the general public remains low but anyone with concerns should contact their GP or NHS 24’s dedicated hotline on 0800 0858 531.”

Dr Duncan McCormick, chair of the Incident Management Team and consultant in public health medicine at NHS Lothian, said: “The number of patients with confirmed or suspected legionnaires’ disease has increased since yesterday. This is exactly in line with what we expected and predicted.

“We expect that the numbers of patients affected will peak over the weekend and then fall as we move into next week.

“The majority of patients who are presenting now are also on the lower end of the sickness scale and are therefore more likely to be treated in the community with appropriate care than be admitted into hospital.”