Environmental Health and Safety

HVAC Cooling Towers

Cooling Tower Maintenance and Safety Procedures
This notice is to inform the Ithaca College community that routine testing of cooling towers on campus buildings was recently conducted, with one tower showing amounts of the Legionella bacteria that require public notification under New York State regulations. The detection of this bacteria is NOT a health risk.

On the same day the college was notified of the test results, the affected tower was treated in accordance with New York State Department of Health guidelines. A subsequent retest has shown that the treatment succeeded in reducing the bacteria level to nearly undetectable amounts.

The college is working closely with the Tompkins County Health Department to adhere to best practices related to state regulations.

Routine testing and maintenance
Regular, periodic testing of cooling towers for Legionella bacteria began in September 2016, as the result of standards and regulations enacted by the New York State Department of Health intended to mitigate the spread of Legionella from towers associated with building cooling systems.

Cooling towers are typically located on the exterior of commercial buildings and found among other HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning) equipment used to maintain building temperatures. Cooling towers may spread bacteria when they emit an evaporated mist into the adjacent air outside.

Continued monitoring
Ithaca College takes the health and safety of its community very seriously, and will continue to closely monitor its cooling towers and take action proactively to ensure the bacteria does not reach unsafe levels.

The college's cooling tower samples are sent to the Special Pathogens Laboratory in Pittsburgh, headed by Dr. Janet E. Stout, who is internationally recognized for her research on Legionella and its connections with Legionnaires’ disease.

Stout said that it’s not atypical for a cooling tower to test positive for Legionella, but that the results should not be cause for alarm.

“You should think of it as a performance-based measure, not a health-based measure or indicator,” she said. “It doesn't mean that there’s imminent danger or that cases are going to occur. The bottom line is that most of the time Legionella is present without any repercussions in terms of illness. The good news is that New York’s regulations and the ASHRAE (American Society of Heating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) standards now have some guidance in place for people to use to help maintain their cooling towers in a healthy way.”

Facts about Legionella

  • Legionellosis (also known as Legionnaires’ disease) is a bacterial disease which may cause pneumonia. Fewer than 100 cases are reported each year in upstate New York.
  • Legionellosis has not been proven to be contagious.
  • Symptoms can include: cough, shortness of breath, high fever, muscle aches, and headaches. If you develop these symptoms, see a doctor right away.
  • Most cases of illness associated with Legionella can be treated successfully with antibiotics.
  • People of any age can get Legionellosis, but the disease most often affects the elderly. People with underlying illnesses or with lowered immune system resistance to disease are also at higher risk. It rarely occurs in otherwise healthy people.
  • Since the Legionella bacteria exist naturally in the environment, people often receive low-level exposure without contracting the disease.

Sources for facts:
New York State Department of Health Legionellosis Fact Sheet

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Information on Legionella

Official Notice from the Tompkins County Health Department
In accordance with newly adopted New York State Sanitary Code requirements (Subpart 4-1, Protection Against Legionella), Ithaca College tested its cooling towers. The college was verbally notified by its testing laboratory on September 27, 2016, that a sample from a tower located at 318 Grant Egbert Blvd. showed a concentration of Legionella bacteria of more than 1000 colony forming units per milliliter (CFU/mL). Per state protocol, any result over 1000 CFU/mL requires public notification, review of cooling tower treatment protocols, and decontamination of the cooling tower.

This serves as the required public notification. Ithaca College performed a decontamination procedure of the cooling tower on September 27, 2016. Ithaca College staff in the Office of Facilities and Office of Environmental Health and Safety have reviewed cooling tower treatment protocols, and retested the cooling tower within the 3–7 days required by the code. The new results indicate the amount of Legionella has been reduced from the initial 1680 CFU/ml to 40 CFU/ml, well within acceptable levels.

If you have any questions regarding this notice, contact Dave Maley, Ithaca College senior associate director of media and community relations, at maley@ithaca.edu.

More information on Legionella can be found on the Tompkins County Health Department website.