Twelve deaths from Legionnaires’ disease linked to a cooling tower in the South Bronx prompted New York City to pass a law on August 18, 2015, that requires all cooling towers to be registered with the Department of Buildings and includes specific mandates for compliance with health and safety measures.

This summer the South Bronx experienced an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, an illness traced to the Legionella bacteria present in air conditioning cooling towers. Typically, the disease results when contaminated water is inhaled into the lungs. Health officials believe that the bacteria festered in at least a dozen South Bronx cooling towers and contaminated their systems, most dramatically at a local hotel to which the deaths of 12 persons with preexisting health problems have been linked. While the outbreak is now contained, more than100 people contracted the disease.

In an attempt to curtail the outbreak, on August 6, 2015, the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) issued an order to building owners to disinfect all cooling towers by August 27. In addition, the order makes cooling tower registration mandatory and registration must be completed prior to initial operation. Existing cooling towers must be registered by September 17, 2015.

On August 14, 2015, the New York City Council passed a bill (Intro. 866) that the mayor signed into law (2015/077) on August 18, 2015. This law, which is effective immediately, requires building owners to develop a maintenance plan to prevent Legionella contamination.

The law further requires that owners:

  • Register cooling towers with the Department of Buildings
  • Inspect and test them on a quarterly basis
  • Clean and disinfect cooling towers if any test comes back positive for microbes, such as the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease
  • Notify DOHMH if any test comes back positive for microbes.

Building owners are required to pay for the inspection and disinfection. Violations of registration, certification and inspection requirements are punishable by civil penalties up to $10,000. Failures to disinfect cooling towers that test positive for unhealthy levels of such microbes are classified as misdemeanors and are punishable by fines up to $25,000.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled similar statewide regulations requiring building owners to register, test, inspect and disinfect all cooling towers when necessary. A free hotline (1-888-769-7243) has been established to answer questions and provide information regarding the new state regulations.