Source of legionnaires’ outbreak could be revealed within days

Petri dish sample of Legionnaire's disease

Petri dish sample of Legionnaire's disease

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TEST results which may help pinpoint the source of Edinburgh’s legionnaires’ outbreak will be revealed within days.

Health chiefs say they expect the results of samples taken from 20 cooling towers by the end of the week but admit they still may not conclusively identify the source.

It comes as a second company was drawn into the ongoing probe after the Health and Safety Executive served improvement notices on chemical firm Macfarlan Smith, in Wheatfield Road, Gorgie.

The firm has shut down one of its seven cooling towers after the HSE demanded “thorough cleaning” and better access for inspection and maintenance. The nearby North British Distillery has already halted production over alleged failures to control the legionella risk.

Latest figures show the number of people thought to be suffering from the disease has climbed again by six to 88, of which 39 cases are confirmed and 49 suspected.

Dr Duncan McCormick of NHS Lothian, who is overseeing the response to the outbreak, said the source of the outbreak remained unknown as the test results were awaited.

“The city council and the Health and Safety Executive have taken a number of samples from the sites which have been identified as the possible source of this outbreak,” he said. “These samples are now undergoing a range of tests and it will be later this week before any results are known. It is important to note that sometimes it is not possible to conclusively identify a source.”

Construction worker Bert Air, 56, remains the only death from the outbreak, and authorities are considering whether to stage a fatal accident inquiry.

A Crown Office spokesman told the Evening News: “We can confirm that Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service has received a report in relation to the death of a 56-year-old man in Edinburgh on June 5, 2012.”

Both MacFarlan Smith and the distillery were among six premises where inspectors examined cooling towers. A statement from Macfarlan Smith said it had closed down the cooling tower voluntarily during a visit by HSE inspectors on Sunday.

It said: “Subsequent to the visit, the HSE have today served two improvement notices on Macfarlan Smith, one relating to the cleaning of the tower and one relating to improvement of access to the tower. As the HSE has stated, this does not mean that this cooling tower has been identified as the source of the outbreak.

“Macfarlan Smith continues to work closely with the HSE in their investigations. The health and safety of our employees and the local community remains our highest priority. Our thoughts are with the individuals and families affected.”

An HSE statement said: “The company has allegedly failed to maintain their control measures for the safe operation of the cooling tower to the required standard. It does not indicate an immediate risk from legionella, as this was being controlled by the emergency dosing of chemicals and the company’s subsequent voluntary shutdown of the cooling tower.

“HSE can issue an Improvement Notice where there has been a contravention of health and safety law. The notice sets out what remedial action is necessary and a deadline for its completion, in this case 9 July 2012.”

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said the latest patient figures were “in line with expectations”. “With a 14-day incubation period, we would expect there to be fluctuations over the next week or so,” she said. NHS Lothian services are coping with the demands and the City of Edinburgh Council and the Health and Safety Executive continue to make significant progress in their investigation to identify the source of this outbreak.”

Of those being treated in hospital yesterday, 14 were in intensive care and 26 on general wards. Another 18 cases are being treated in the community and 22 have been discharged from hospital.