This article originally appeared in The South End's fall 2019 Back to School print edition.

Wayne State continued its new water testing program and found elevated levels of Legionella — the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease — in the cooling towers of Old Main.

The discovery was made during “routine testing,” said William Decatur, vice president for finance and business operations.

“When this occurs, university protocol dictates that the cooling towers are immediately taken offline, so they can be disinfected and cleaned,” he said in an email to students, staff, and faculty on June 25. WSU said they shut down Old Main’s air conditioning system while they treated the towers.

Cooling towers are cleaned with a “shock of chemicals,” or a change to the water treatment plan, said Decatur. “Water in cooling towers is not the same water that you drink; the system is isolated. Air from cooling towers is directed away from the building, not into the building,” he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Legionella occurs naturally in large, fresh bodies of water, but can become harmful when there is an overgrowth in human-made water systems.

It is only spread when humans breathe in droplets of water or mist containing Legionella, and is not spread by touch, according to the CDC. Symptoms include coughing, fever, muscular aches and headaches.

WSU’s water management plan leads way for Legionella treatment and prevention in higher education WSU’s water management plan was implemented last spring after a faculty member contracted Legionnaires’ disease, Chief of Staff Michael Wright said in an email July 2018.

Testing revealed significant Legionella blooms in the water systems of 25 buildings across campus, all of which were treated, Wright said.

“The elevated readings we found last summer have been successfully remediated using industry best practices,” said Ted Montgomery, vice president of marketing and communications.

The university believes they are finding Legionella more often because they are testing more frequently, Montgomery said.

WSU now uses the “most stringent,” water testing and treatment practices, said Ashley Flintoff, director of planning space and management. WSU is “leading the charge in higher-ed about addressing Legionella,” including creating resources and training for other universities, she said.

Legionella bacteria is commonly found in water systems and traceable amounts can usually be detected in any large water system, said Montgomery.

Two cases of Legionnaires’ disease were reported by contractors who had been working on the Anthony Wayne Drive Apartments summer 2018. They were confirmed by the Detroit Health Department.


Carmen Nesbit is TSE's news correspondent. She can be reached at carmenes@wayne.edu.

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