Call made for A Public Inquiry to improve preventative measures
Lawyers representing more than 30 victims of the UK’s two recent major Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks in Edinburgh and Stoke have expressed serious concerns over new information which shows that the number of inspections of cooling towers has fallen.
In the last few weeks, Legionnaires’ disease has killed three members of the public and left around 100 ill after an outbreak in Edinburgh while two more members of the public have died and more than 20 left ill following an outbreak in Stoke-on-Trent.
While a ‘probable source’ of a hot tub in a shop display has been identified in relation to the Staffordshire outbreak, investigations in Scotland have so far revealed very little about what may have caused the illness to spread.
The investigations in Edinburgh have centred on several cooling towers, a known potential source of Legionella bacteria, but latest figures disclosed by the Health and Safety Executive ( HSE) show that the number of inspections of the structures by the HSE across the UK has fallen dramatically in the past year.
The HSE is responsible for inspecting around half of the 6,000 cooling towers in the UK while the rest are checked by local councils. In 2010 there were 237 inspections compared to just 134 last year.
Specialist illness experts at Irwin Mitchell are representing over 30 victims and families of those killed by Legionnaires’ disease in Edinburgh as well as four further victims of the outbreak in Stoke. The firm is also instructed to act on behalf of the families of those killed and several other British victims of an outbreak of the disease in Calpe, Spain earlier this year.
Clive Garner, who has many years experience of representing victims of Legionnaires’ disease and their families, said today: “Legionnaires’ disease is a very serious condition which often causes significant suffering to victims and sadly often proves fatal.
“The three recent outbreaks in the UK and Spain are deeply worrying. We would expect preventative steps to be increased year on year to combat the spread of Legionella bacteria which causes the infection .”
Information disclosed from the Health and Safety Executive following a Freedom of information request, indicates that there are 4,600 notified cooling sites in the UK, with the HSE responsible for inspecting around 2,900 of these.
Despite this, the HSE carried out inspections at only 134 cooling towers across the UK in 2011. This is almost half of the 237 inspections that the HSE carried out the previous year. The figures for both years include inspections by the HSE’s Field Operations Directorate (FOD) and Hazardous Installations Directorate (HID) but they exclude inspections by inspectors from HSE's Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR).
Garner added: “The like for like comparison is alarming and there are real fears that towers which could pose a serious risk to the public will not be inspected until it is too late.
“We have seen the comments from Professor Hugh Pennington suggesting that a Public Inquiry is the best way to identify what caused the problems leading to the Edinburgh outbreak and to determine the best way of avoiding similar outbreaks in the future. We fully support Professor Pennington’s call and urge that the terms of reference of any inquiry are broad enough to make recommendations to deal with prevention of Legionnaires’ Disease across the UK, not just in Scotland.
“There are simple steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of infection with Legionella bacteria. The disease is normally contracted by inhaling contaminated droplets of water. Typically sources include contaminated water droplets from cooling towers, showers, air conditioning systems, fountains or water features.
“While methods of treating infection have undoubtedly improved in recent years, there are real concerns that there has been a reversal in the adequacy of steps taken to prevent infection. This must be fully investigated and all reasonable measures taken to prevent further outbreaks with the associated loss of life and serious illness to innocent members of the public.
“In our experience of many past outbreaks, the reason for infection has usually been the failure to take simple preventative steps. These include maintaining stored water within the safe temperature range and making use of an appropriate level of chlorination. Protocols specifically designed to reduce the risk of infection are widely known and it is a real concern to see several major fatal outbreaks within a few months.”
Professor Hugh Pennington added: "It is clearly time for a rapid root and branch reform of the regulatory system for Legionella."