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‘Let’s be proactive, than reactive’

Rodger Macfarlane, Technical Director, Culligan Middle East, speaks to Hannah Jo Uy of Climate Control Middle East, on the need to drive better awareness and investment towards legionella prevention, and the need for more cohesive guidelines supported by knowledge from technical experts

| | Nov 19, 2020 | 6:31 am
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Rodger Macfarlane

Cost cutting by stakeholders is leading to a reduction in Legionella testing, says Rodger Macfarlane, Technical Director, Culligan Middle East, who adds that the company would normally expect to see a peak in the positive counts over the coming weeks as COVID-19 restrictions are loosened. “I’m pretty sure that we’ll see a bigger increase this time as hotel rooms and apartments are brought back into use,” he says. “The big question is, are enough checks being implemented by entities that are in the process of reopening?”

Macfarlane says that as far as he can see, municipalities have not been issuing directives for businesses to take any special measures for legionella prevention. “We are certainly not having any customers approaching us asking for extra testing,” he says. “We would have expected businesses to be opting for additional checks during the process of reopening – for example, on-site quick checks for legionella before opening a building and putting a water system online.” He adds that in the region, the major sources of legionella are cooling towers, fountains, spray taps and showers. Although water features are monitored and controlled very closely in terms of legionella with a very high pass mark, Mcfarlane says that his main concern is surrounding domestic water systems. “Apartments and hotel rooms are being vacated and left empty for a period of time,” he says. “Even as an absolute bare minimum, are the water outlets, the spray taps and showers being flushed through before the apartments and hotel rooms are reopened?”

Macfarlane adds that in the case of a full legionella check, the laboratory process takes around a week just for incubation. “This means that if you’re opening a building, you’re not going to know if your water is safe until seven days after you’ve taken the sample, by which time the building could have been open for a few days,” he says.

Lack of proactive management

Macfarlane says that the lack of legionella-mitigation efforts in the wake of the reopening of many businesses is a symptom of a bigger problem in the industry, stemming from the lack of proactive management systems.  This, he says, is largely because current legal requirements do not specify compulsory action beyond testing and monitoring. “Municipalities put a lot of store in the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for drinking water safety, but they don’t do the same with the WHO guidelines for legionella control,” he says. “My message would be – let’s be more proactive to prevent these problems rather than reactive and solving the problems once they’ve occurred. Once the problem is there, once the biofilms with legionella are in the water, you’ve now got a problem. By the time you get the inspector around and you take corrective actions, someone could have been infected and it’s too late.”

Macfarlane’s sense of urgency stems from insights he has accumulated helping government bodies manage legionella. In this scope of work, he says, the company carried out site surveys and proceeded through to risk assessment and action plans as part of water safety plans before undertaking the necessary sampling, analysis and reporting. “What stands out in this region is that in many cases, official guidelines generally don’t go beyond testing, recording and reporting,” he says. “There is little emphasis on best practice in terms of site survey/risk assessment/action plan to determine what needs to be done by who, in order to resolve any legionella problems that exist at the time of the site survey and which may arise thereafter.”

Mcfarlane says that despite the fact that the WHO document, titled ‘Legionella and the prevention of legionellosis’ shows the preparation of water safety plans as being best practice, water safety plans in this region are scarce, save for those put in place by organisations, where management systems are from outside the country, typically hotels. “Generally speaking, those organisations which require us to deliver water safety plans take this course, because it is the right thing to do, not because it was mandated by any government guidelines,” he says. “The existing guidelines, while they are fine within themselves, need to be extended to include and prioritise system surveys, water safety plans and management plans, rather than focusing only on testing and reacting to failed results.”

An overview of the sector

In the current market, the level of awareness and the willingness to invest in legionella prevention measures vary among sectors. Macfarlane says that the healthcare sector generally is more active in this area. “The larger healthcare facilities, in particular, have water hygiene well covered, because they have processes which include risk assessment and management systems,” he says. “The kind of hospitals we’re dealing with, like Cleveland Clinic and American Hospital, have their own management systems. They go well beyond the requirements of the municipality standards.”

Hotels, however, tend to follow the guidelines, but not best practice, says Mcfarlane. “They do the testing, flushing and cleaning, but generally it’s only the big five-star hotels which have management systems in place, because they’re imposed from head office in Europe or America,” he points out.

As for commercial and residential sectors, Macfarlane says it varies depending on the building management. “There are buildings in Dubai, for instance, which are looked after by top line property management or FM companies, who are very much best in class,” he says. “They have systems and procedures in place, which ensure this is all well-audited and controlled. But the smaller companies and smaller hotels, who manage themselves, will literally do barely enough to meet the requirements of the guidelines. They’re not breaking any laws. They are not doing anything wrong, but they are reactive rather than proactive. The proactive ones are where we see very little in terms of positive results.”

The ROI of legionella prevention

For Macfarlane, the onus is on building owners to drive better practices. He points out that doing so would future-proof the portfolio. “Building owners who hold back on investment in the best water treatment solutions and safeguards can end up with a system which uses lower-quality chemicals and does not include legionella testing and other lab services, so the risks are obvious,” he says. “Another big problem is the gap between the consultants who specify the equipment/chemicals being installed in new buildings and the requirements of the municipality, which may not always be published. So, an expensive dosing and control system can become redundant before the building is handed over to the client.”

Standards are key

Macfarlane believes that a lot of these can be avoided through regulations but that there are not enough standards and guidelines in the region, and that there is too much variability. Macfarlane points out that this reflects the varying level of awareness among the entities. “There are public sector organisations who are very much aware of their responsibilities, but there are others who are clearly not as focused on this as they should be,” he says. “Municipalities generally need to be more open minded and place more trust in those within the private sector with the technical know-how, expertise and the right solutions to help them raise the bar in terms of legionella prevention.”

That said, Macfarlane says he remains sympathetic to the challenges facing the municipality. “On one hand, municipalities want to benefit from expert technical advice,” he says. “On the other, of course, they can’t be seen to be favouring company A versus company B. Because of that, discussions on the problems they face, and the solutions available, tend not to go any further.” As such, Macfarlane believes that it would help if municipalities published a list of specialist companies producing systems that can be used to effectively control legionella, similar to programmes used to identify approved suppliers in other sectors.

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