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US Plumbing Code Needs a 21st-Century Makeover

Photo of old plumbing

Most of us carry supercomputers in our pockets all day — the better to check Facebook for your sister’s latest cat video — but the plumbing systems we rely on for clean water haven’t improved since D-Day. Is it an issue of priorities? After all, keeping up on Facebook is a lot more fun than thinking about where clean water comes from. And how clean it really is.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in June 2016, revealed that reported Legionella infections have increase almost four-fold since 2000 — the good ol’ days when our biggest fear was the Y2K “bug.” And all along the real threat was this prelude to the sci-fi superflu, Legionnaires’ Disease.

Lead and Legionella in US Water

While news on the Flint water crisis has a lot to say about the toxic levels of lead content (even copper pipes have lead solder), Legionnaires’ Disease was exploding as well, with 91 infections and 12 deaths associated with Flint water sources during a 17-month period. That’s an increase of over 85% of the usual infection rate for Genesee County (where Flint is located).

The conclusion many people are coming to is that it’s past time to update US plumbing code. Large systems need to eliminate areas where water sits warm and undisturbed for too long — an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. Hospitals, schools, senior centers, and other large institutions are disproportionately affected — unfortunately these are also places where the immunocompromised congregate. The CDC developed a healthy water toolkit for Flint, which is being implemented by three area hospitals and all buildings that are 10 stories or higher.

You Can’t Fight a Problem You Can’t Find

Not everyone is convinced that engineering is the problem, or the solution. William McCoy, Standards Committee chairman at the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, argues that having a national standard for building systems management, including testing and reporting, will go a long way toward detecting water-borne bacteria before it becomes a public health hazard. The US stands out among other first-world countries for its lack of water system standards to deal with Legionella.

With increased testing comes increased wear and tear on lab equipment.  Water- and energy-conserving tabletop autoclaves are a smart move for busy, budget-minded public health labs.

[Photo credit: Rex Babiera, CC BY 2.0]