Health scare offers a timely reminder

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 January, 2012, 12:00am


Legionnaires' disease is an illness about which we know a great deal - how it occurs, who is vulnerable, how to prevent it, the symptoms and treatment. Yet despite our knowledge, the bacteria that causes this form of pneumonia - not uncommon - has been found in worrying levels in parts of the government's new headquarters at Tamar as a result of an investigation into how education chief Michael Suen Ming-yeung came to be stricken. If a structure so expensive, new and technologically sophisticated can be contaminated, it is natural to assume that the problem could be widespread in Hong Kong.

Thankfully, Suen has recovered and is expected back at work next week. Technicians are sterilising the water systems at the HK$5.5 billion complex. Whether that will be the end of the matter is unclear, though, as the reason for the presence of the legionella bacteria has yet to be determined. It is found naturally in the environment in low levels, but building guidelines and inspections should prevent it from taking hold in plumbing, hot water, ventilation, air conditioning and storage tanks, places where it thrives. Making the headquarters safe may involve simply cleaning pipes, but it could also prove expensive, with systems having to be replaced and civil servants being relocated.

It is surprising that the bacteria has occurred in a building opened only in September and that it has spread so widely. Suen became ill on December 18 and the infection was found 10 days later in a tap in his private washroom. It subsequently turned up in nine water samples, from the chief executive's office to a first-floor kitchen in the Legislative Council complex. We can for now only speculate about its presence: perhaps the fast-tracked construction schedule played a part; maybe designs were flawed, proper checks were not carried out or the wrong materials used. Whatever the reason, those working in the headquarters now worry about their health and safety, and the rest of the community is concerned about homes and offices.

Overseas studies have found that the bacteria is present in low levels in 60 per cent of man-made water systems. Legionella was discovered 35 years ago and ways to prevent its colonisation to dangerous levels in buildings have been found. We should expect a sharp decrease in infections. Unfortunately, carelessness means that this is not the case.

Government records show high levels of legionella were found in 15 of the 464 buildings - a fraction of the hundreds of thousands in our city - inspected in the past eight months. The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome nine years ago taught us the link between buildings and health and the importance of design, construction, maintenance and inspections. That message has been reiterated by the findings at Tamar. With legionnaires' disease, that puts the onus of prevention on owners, engineers and contractors.