Legionnaires’ Outbreak Re-defined the Cooling Tower Cleaner’s Job

(Photo Credit: Clarity Water Technologies)


With gloves, a respirator and goggles, Reynaldo Noyola, 40, a field supervisor for Clarity Water Technologies, suits up to clean another building’s cooling tower.


Once fairly routine, the job he has mastered over 15 years has become almost a matter of life and death, as Legionella bacteria spread in various South Bronx cooling towers this summer, killing 16 residents.


“I get a satisfaction of safety each time I finish a cleaning,” said Noyola, of the new sense of purpose his job has taken on. “It makes me feel so good that I’m saving somebody’s life, or that I possibly saved someone’s life.”


Still, Noyola keeps his cool. “At times this job can be stressful, especially when we have a lot of assignments,” said Noyola, who has worked for Clarity Water Technologies for two years. The workload for his company grew from around a dozen cleanings per week to hundreds all together during the Legionnaires’ outbreak. “But overall, it’s pretty straightforward and easygoing most of the time.”


Noyola never intended to work for a cooling tower maintenance and water treatment company as long as he has. The salary is what ultimately lured him to the job when he started working as a helper.


“I was first just interested in the money, but slowly I began to obtain an interest in how it all worked,” said Noyola. “As the opportunity came along, I became a mechanic, and the more I learned about the job, the more it motivated me to continue doing it.”


In the last few months, Noyola said the Legionella scare has caused a major increase in the number of cooling towers on his schedule.


“Last month we were booked every day and every night,” said Loyola.


Since Legionella began plaguing the South Bronx in mid-July, there have been roughly 150 cases of the disease and 17 deaths in the borough alone, according to the New York City Health Department.


In September, 15 cases appeared in the Morris Park neighborhood, a more affluent and predominately white area of the Bronx.


“This can’t only be happening in the Bronx,” Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. told the city’s health department at a Town Hall meeting in Morris Park earlier in the month. “It seems as though every time we hear about Legionella, it’s only the Bronx.”


After the summer outbreak, Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered all of the city’s cooling towers to be inspected and disinfected within two weeks.


“Before this outbreak happened, we would clean a few towers a week,” said Josh Baty, Director of P.R. and Marketing for Clarity Water Technologies, one of the companies that cleans and disinfects a large number of cooling towers in New York City. “We would do anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen per week depending on the time and season. Once that Legionella outbreak happened, that number was ratcheted up by a lot. We’re talking about hundreds of cooling tower cleanings.”


Legionella bacteria can develop in a wide variety of places, but because cooling towers have large amounts of water, the bacteria can form quickly if the towers are not maintained frequently.


“The bacteria is pretty common in just about all fresh water, but the infections luckily are not as common. There may be around 200 cases in New York City per year and thousands throughout the country,” said Professor Stephen Morse of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.


The process of cleaning a cooling tower depends on a variety of factors. These include the size of a tower, its relative cleanliness, and its accessibility.


“Throughout the five boroughs there are different classes of buildings,” said Baty. “Class A buildings are big towers, and generally have good access. Class B and C are usually smaller. There could be towers that are not on a roof that can be difficult to access. We need to be able to get to the tower, put the chemical inside and hook up a tower washer.”


When a cleaning team arrives at a tower, the workers begin by making their own safety a top priority.


Reynaldo Noyola (far right) and his team at Clarity Water Technologies continue to stay busy after a new law mandates cooling towers be tested and checked on a quarterly basis. (Photo credit: Clarity Water Technologies)
Reynaldo Noyola (far right) and his team at Clarity Water Technologies continue to stay busy after a new law mandates cooling towers be tested and checked on a quarterly basis. (Photo credit: Clarity Water Technologies)


“We put on our protective gear before we start anything,” said Noyola.


The cleaners use what is called a biocide, which most of the time is a derivative of chlorine. As the cleaners are able to get inside the tower, the biocide is placed inside and it is circulated throughout the structure. The circulation happens for a short period of time so that the chemical starts to kill anything that could be living in the water.


“We let the chemical run for about 30 minutes to an hour depending on the size of the cooling tower,” said Noyola.


Once the tower is filled with biocide, the workers physically clean it.


“The reason that we do that first is because to physically clean a cooling tower, you need to use a pressure washer,” said Baty. “We have special tower washers because the fill inside most cooling towers are made out of plastic or some lighter material. So knowing how to clean them without destroying them is also important.”


The cleaning includes scooping out any dirt, solid or silt materials inside the tower. Once it is cleaned from top to bottom, the tower is completely drained.


“Then we’ll refill the tower with another heavy chemical, in other words another dose of biocide,” continued Baty. “We’ll then let the tower run and circulate that biocide through it before flushing it again.”


Cooling towers are categorized based on tonnage. Small towers are anywhere from 20 to 100 tons. Baty said a small tower cleaning can be completed with two or three people, but a tower over 100 tons can range anywhere from six to 12 cleaners.


“Some towers are so tiny you can barely fit a hand into them. Others are so big you could fit yourself and five of your friends inside,” said Baty.


According to Baty, the cost of cleaning these towers varies as well. A cleaning for smaller sized cooling towers that do not contain much dirt usually run around $500. The larger ones can cost as much as a few thousand dollars.


The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends cooling towers be cleaned at least twice year. The law which Mayor de Blasio signed in August, however, mandates that cooling towers throughout the city be checked on a quarterly basis.


“Some cooling towers run year round and are never shut down. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be cleaned,” said Baty. “That means you’ve got to figure out the best time for them to be cleaned. In general, cooling towers are used for comfort cooling, right at the beginning of spring when it starts to become warmer and then they’re taken offline later on in the late fall when it starts to become cooler.”


Baty said he has noticed a dramatic increase in the number of cooling towers Clarity Water Technologies has cleaned since the Legionella outbreak.


The new law mandates that building owners are required to make sure their cooling towers are being checked and maintained properly. Within 15 days prior to start up, if a cooling tower has been offline for more than five days, it must be cleaned and disinfected before it is started up again.


New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced new regulations statewide in August to help prevent future outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease. All cooling towers were supposed to be registered with the State Department of Health within 30 days of the new law being mandated. New cooling towers must now be registered prior to operation. The governor’s office said registration of the cooling towers will be completed through a statewide electronic system.


The regulation also mandated all building owners with cooling towers to collect samples and to complete a culture testing, or an evaluation of a sample fluid, within 30 days of the implementation of the law. Testing of the cooling towers is now required every 90 days and disinfection must take place if the culture test comes back positive.


Under the new law, building owners with cooling towers must also implement a maintenance plan by March 1 of next year. This plan requires the owners to include a schedule of when sampling will occur on a routine basis as well as procedure outlines regarding emergency testing and disinfection of Legionella bacteria.


All cooling towers are required to be considered compliant with the new regulations by November 1, 2016 and will be required annually to be compliant by November first of each year.


A total of 35 cooling towers in Morris Park were tested for Legionella bacteria on September 26, and 15 tested positive with the bacteria. The sites of these contaminated cooling towers included Lehman High School, Calvary Hospital, Einstein College and Bronx State Psychiatric.


In July, the Legionnaires’ outbreak killed 16 people and infected 133 individuals in the South Bronx, according to the city’s Health Department. The source of the outbreak was traced to a cooling tower at the Opera House Hotel and the department declared the outbreak over in late August.


Two weeks later, the hot water distribution systems inside four buildings at the Melrose Houses apartment complex tested positive for Legionella bacteria. One person became sick as a result, and the Department of Health later revealed that three other residents of the complex had been previously sick; one person in March and two others during the summer outbreak.


Symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease include fever, cough, chills and headache. It cannot be passed from person to person and an individual can only get sick if he or she breathes in the water vapor containing the bacteria.


Clarity Water Technologies has cleaned many cooling towers throughout the city including in the Bronx, but Baty said the company was not called to disinfect any of the cooling towers that tested positive for Legionella during the most recent outbreak. It has however, made the team at Clarity Water Technologies more unified despite the craziness.


“We’ve had more frequent safety and organization meetings, but overall this has made us communicate better with one another and has brought us closer together as well,” said Noyola.