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Could my household plumbing harbor disease-causing bacteria?

Your household plumbing could house harmful bacteria that can cause health problems such as Legionnaires’ disease. Legionellosis is a respiratory disease that can lead to a very harmful kind of pneumonia called Legionnaires’ disease after exposure to Legionella, a type of bacteria. The Legionella bacteria can also cause Pontiac fever, a milder case of Legionellosis that is similar to the flu. Symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath, fever, headaches and aching muscles. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms can begin two days after exposure to Legionella, but symptoms have been observed to manifest even up to two weeks later.

Legionella thrives in warm fresh, usually stagnant, water, especially in plumbing systems. Legionella is most often found in hot tubs that aren’t drained, hot water storage tanks and sometimes even water heaters. But it is most common in larger plumbing systems, cooling towers and fountains. Exposure happens when you breathe in mist or steam containing the bacteria and it enters the lungs. The elderly and those with weak lungs or immune systems are at the greatest risk.

The best way to prevent Legionnaires’ disease is to sanitize your bathroom. A sanitized, well-maintained and clean bathroom is an environment which doesn’t allow Legionella to spread. Make sure to drain your tubs after use and always make sure your sinks and tubs are cleaned with the proper disinfectant. Manufacturers will often have instructions on how to best keep your bathroom fixtures clean, so make sure to follow directions carefully. Cleaning everything in your bathroom with soapy water and diluted bleach is recommended. Scrubbing every surface with a labeled disinfectant is another smart choice.

Heating your water heater to 140°F ensures the the bacteria cannot survive inside the water heater. However, setting a residential water heater to such high temperatures greatly increases the risk of scald burns, especially among children and the elderly, whose skin can burn in as little as a few seconds. For that reason, many plumbers recommend setting the water heater temperature to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. However, Legionella bacteria can live (but not spread) at that temperature. Temperature reducing mixing valves pipe in cold water to mix with the hot water before it reaches a faucet. This insures the water that comes out of the taps is not hot enough to scald skin. In Canada, the government recommends that water heaters be set no lower than 140 degrees but in the U.S. scalding is considered a much higher risk than Legionella so the recommended temperature for a water heater in the United States is usually 120 degrees Fahrenheit. If your water heater is set to a higher setting, it is recommended that everyone in the house be taught to turn on cold water first and carefully mix in hot water when a bath is drawn or before someone walks beneath a shower spray.

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