Legionnaires’ outbreak: Questions over gap in extending cooling tower probe

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon
Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon
22
Have your say

HEALTH chiefs were today facing questions over why there was a delay of up to three days in extending the legionnaires’ disease investigation to two more sites in the city.

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon revealed that in addition to the four sites where cooling towers were initially tested and chemically treated, towers at a further two had since been targeted as well.

That led opposition politicians and experts to demand to know why the sites had not been included in the original clean-up – and raised fears time may have been wasted in stemming the source of the deadly bug.

A Scottish Government source today insisted the focus remained on the original four sites as the probable centre of the outbreak and that the other two had now been included on the “precautionary principle”. But Labour peer and former Lothians MSP George Foulkes said it showed the Scottish Government response had been too slow.

He said: “They should have demanded to know which cooling towers in the area might have been causing the problem. They dealt with some of them, but they didn’t deal with all of them. I really think it ought to have been dealt with more urgently.” And Allen Wilson, a health and safety expert in dealing with legionnaires, said the addition of two new sites to the list three days after the first round of testing was “worrying”.

He said: “Are there going to be two more tomorrow? It seems they are thinking possibly they’ve not got it. It’s going to be completely unacceptable if we find they have missed it and there is still something belching out legionella bacteria.”

Today, there were also unanswered questions about the monitoring and inspection requirements placed on operators of cooling towers. Despite repeated requests by the Evening News, the Health and Safety Executive has failed to provide an explanation of how often it carried out inspections or details of how frequently operators should carry out tests.

There are now a total of 61 confirmed and suspected cases, including the death of 56-year-old builder Robert Air. A 19-year-old is now among the confirmed cases.

Health chiefs also revealed that one of the new patients linked to the outbreak was being treated in the Highlands and one in the north of England. Both had visited the affected area. There are some encouraging signs, however, as people being admitted to hospital now are said to be generally less ill than those earlier in the outbreak. It is believed that this is because more vulnerable people became ill first.

Chairman of the incident management team, Dr Duncan McCormick, said: “We’re hoping to see no further deaths. We’re doing everything we can in terms of early diagnosis, appropriate treatment and intensive care, but I think we can’t rule out any further deaths at this stage.”

Dr McCormick said 13 of the 61 confirmed or suspected legionnaires’ patients were being treated in the community with anti-biotics.

Ms Sturgeon said the outbreak was “significant” - Scotland normally saw about 40 cases of legionnaires a year. She said she was satisfied appropriate action was being taken and NHS Lothian staff had acted “swiftly” to deal with the situation

Emergency call service NHS 24 has seen a 20 per cent increase in calls as a direct result of the legionnaires disease outbreak.

The four sites at the centre of the investigation – Burton’s Biscuit Company at Sighthill industrial estate, the North British Distillery and pharmaceutical company Macfarlan Smith, both in Wheatfield Road, and insurance firm Aegon in Lochside Crescent – were all visited on Sunday evening and samples were taken.

Over Sunday night and Monday all 16 cooling towers at the sites were “shock dosed” with chemicals.

But Ms Sturgeon, who admitted yesterday the source may never be identified, told MSPs: “Over the past two days a further three towers on two sites further out from the site of the outbreak have been tested and treated.”

At a press conference later she refused to comment further on the location of the two sites and said the focus remained on cooling towers in the south-west of the city, which have undergone a fresh round of treatment.

The city council said there were a total of 35 cooling towers in Edinburgh at 12 different locations. And it said 23 of them on six sites had now been tested.

A council spokesman said there were no plans to test any more towers further afield unless the incident management team decided to extend the area involved.

A Scottish Government source said the decision to test and treat the cooling towers on the extra two sites had not been prompted by any particular case or incident. “It was just the fact they were adjacent to the area.”

But pressed on why they had not been tested as a precaution at the same time as the towers on the other four sites, he said it was the Health and Safety Executive which was taking the lead on these matters.

HSE was unable to comment.

THE UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

• Why was there a three-day delay in testing and treating cooling towers at two sites which could potentially be the source of the outbreak?

The Scottish Government insists the move is precautionary. The HSE has failed to respond.

• When were the cooling towers under suspicion last visited by inspectors?

Operators of three of the sites have explained their own monitoring regimes but the HSE has not said when it last carried out inspections.

• What requirements are there on companies about monitoring their cooling towers?

HSE says how often towers are checked varies according to a number of factors. “It is not a prescriptive schedule.”

• Has monitoring of the cooling towers been cut back due to spending cuts?

HSE says inspections are “risk-based” rather than “frequency-based”.

35,000 leaflets going out to city’s south-west

A MAJOR leaflet campaign is being launched to reassure Edinburgh residents in the midst of the legionnaires’ outbreak.

Around 35,000 leaflets will be posted through letter boxes in the south-west of the city with information and advice on the disease.

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said that the first 15,000 were in the process of being delivered yesterday by NHS Lothian with another 20,000 on the way.

The health board had faced criticism in the days following the first cases from confused residents, who said more should have been done to tell them about the illness.

Ms Sturgeon said: “I’m not sure if it’s the first time NHS Lothian has ever done a leaflet drop like this but, whether it is or not, it’s the right thing to do because information is key to make sure people are alert, aware of the symptoms and that they know what to do.”

The leaflet states that there is no evidence to suggest people should not travel to the affected area and advises householders that the illness cannot be caught by drinking tap water. NHS Lothian is to continue to deliver the leaflets throughout today.Around 50 calls were made to a helpline set up to deal with concerns about legionnaires’ disease in the first 24 hours of it going live.

Daniel Sanderson

IN NUMBERS

1 death

5 recovered and discharged from hospital

12 people in intensive care

23 cooling towers cleaned at 6 different sites

24 confirmed cases

37 suspected cases