Primer

The Surprising Connection Between Water Conservation and Deadly Infections

Legionella and other pathogens can proliferate in pipes and low-flow fixtures, threatening the health of vulnerable people.

Civil engineers focused on public health are warning of unintended consequences from common water and energy conservation measures, including low-flow fixtures, aerators, and low water-heater setpoints. If not managed carefully through vigilant operations and maintenance, these strategies can contribute to life-threatening infections, particularly in healthcare settings.

Many naturally occurring waterborne pathogens proliferate in plumbing systems and fixtures within colonies known as biofilms, which cling to wet surfaces and protect the micro-ecosystems thriving within them. Legionella is probably the best known of the waterborne microbes that can grow in plumbing systems and cooling towers. This genus of bacteria includes Legionella pneumophila, the cause of Legionnaire’s disease, which is a form of pneumonia that is typically contracted by people with compromised immune systems or chronic respiratory problems. Because of their vulnerability, hospitals need to be particularly careful to manage their plumbing (see Faucets That Combat Infection Without Wasting Water).

Published December 1, 2014