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Int J Hyg Environ Health. 2014 Mar;217(2-3):145-54. doi: 10.1016/j.ijheh.2013.08.002. Epub 2013 Sep 9.

Assessing the environmental health relevance of cooling towers--a systematic review of legionellosis outbreaks.

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Bavarian Health and Food Safety Authority, Occupational and Environmental Health, Epidemiology, Munich, Germany. Electronic address:
Bavarian Health and Food Safety Authority, Occupational and Environmental Health, Epidemiology, Munich, Germany.
Bavarian Health and Food Safety Authority, Hygiene, Oberschleissheim, Germany.


Bioaerosols from cooling towers are often suspected to cause community-acquired legionellosis outbreaks. Although Legionella infections can mostly be assigned to the emission sources, uncertainty exists about the release and distribution into the air, the occurrence of the respirable virulent form and the level of the infective concentration. Our study aimed to evaluate studies on legionellosis outbreaks attributed to cooling towers published within the last 11 years by means of a systematic review of the literature. 19 legionellosis outbreaks were identified affecting 12 countries. Recurring events were observed in Spain and Great Britain. In total, 1609 confirmed cases of legionellosis and a case-fatality rate of approximately 6% were reported. Duration of outbreaks was 65 days on average. For diagnosis the urinary antigen test was mainly used. Age, smoking, male sex and underlying diseases (diabetes, immunodeficiency) could be confirmed as risk factors. Smoking and underlying diseases were the most frequent risk factors associated with legionellosis in 11 and 10 of the 19 studies, respectively. The meteorological conditions varied strongly. Several studies reported a temporal association of outbreaks with inadequate maintenance of the cooling systems. A match of clinical and environmental isolates by serotyping and/or molecular subtyping could be confirmed in 84% of outbreaks. Legionella-contaminated cooling towers as environmental trigger, in particular in the neighbourhood of susceptible individuals, can cause severe health problems and even death. To prevent and control Legionella contamination of cooling towers, maintenance actions should focus on low-emission cleaning procedures of cooling towers combined with control measurements of water and air samples. Procedures allowing rapid detection and risk assessment in the case of outbreaks are essential for adequate public health measures. Systematic registration of cooling towers will facilitate the identification of the source of outbreaks and help to shorten their duration.


Aerosol; Cooling tower; Environmental health; Legionella; Outbreak; Water

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