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School buildings with Legionella scrubbed clean, cleared for occupancy

New York Teacher

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Jonathan Fickies

The cooling tower in this building that houses a Bronx alternative learning center was thoroughly cleaned after testing positive for the bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease.

The UFT responded swiftly to the news in late July that the Lafayette Academy Alternative Learning Center was one of four sites that tested positive for Legionnaires’ disease in the South Bronx.

After learning of the contamination, the UFT, working with city and state officials, moved immediately to have the school’s cooling tower disinfected. On Aug. 6, the towers were drained, cleaned and sanitized by a qualified business. The tower was subsequently retested and no trace of Legionella, the bacteria that causes the disease, was found.

“The health and safety of students and staff comes first,” said Ellie Engler, the UFT staff director. “No one would be allowed to enter a school unless it was safe.”

Engler told Lafayette school staff that the building was safe in an Aug. 25 letter. That letter also informed them of the Department of Education’s long-term plan, which will include ongoing maintenance and regular evaluations of the water in the cooling towers.

Edward Olmsted, the industrial hygienist in the UFT’s health and safety department, has worked closely with the DOE on the testing and risk management plan to ensure the safety of the building is monitored and maintained.

The site of the former Samuel Gompers HS in the South Bronx also underwent thorough cleaning after low levels of the Legionella bacteria were found in one of its three cooling towers on Aug. 13. Three schools occupy the Gompers building: New Visions Charter HS for the Humanities II, whose staff are represented by the UFT; Health, Education and Research Occupations HS; and Mott Haven Community HS. Environmental consultants recommended the three towers should be cleaned again in November and tested every 90 days.

New state laws require building owners to register cooling towers with the state health department and to create maintenance plans that include periodic testing.

In the wake of the Legionnaires outbreak, the UFT learned that James Rouse, a teacher at PS 325/The Urban Science Academy in the Bronx, had died of the disease in April. An Aug. 13 inspection of his school, which has no cooling tower, found traces of the bacteria in the building’s hot water system, well below the level that would prompt the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to recommend further cleaning and action.

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