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A “low concentration” of Legionella bacteria – which causes Legionnaires’ disease – was discovered in the Kansas City Ford Assembly Plant’s cooling tower, officials announced Dec. 8.

“We take the safety of our workforce very seriously,” officials said in a statement out of the plant in Claycomo, MO. “When routine testing detected a low concentration of Legionella bacteria in an outside cooling tower, we quickly disinfected that location and notified our workforce.

“The level of Legionella detected in our recent sampling is very low and does not represent a health risk to our workers. Legionella is common and naturally occurs in water systems like rivers, streams and lakes. The vast majority of those exposed to the bacterium do not become ill.”

The disclosure comes after Legionnaires’ disease was confirmed in a Ford employee who subsequently underwent surgery Nov. 28 at Liberty Hospital. Family members said they believe she became sick while working at the assembly plant.

Clay County Public Health Center (CCPHC) officials said in November that the disease didn’t necessarily originate at Ford, and that they were not doing any testing at the facility. The CCPHC is investigating but has yet to identify a source for the illness.

Ford’s original statement when news of the employee’s illness was announced read: “We regularly test for Legionella out of an abundance of caution for our employees. All test results have been negative throughout the entire year.”

What is Legionnaires’ disease? 

Legionnaires’ disease is also called Legionellosis and Legionella pneumonia. It is a severe type of pneumonia or lung infection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 25,000 cases of pneumonia caused by Legionella bacteria (Legionella pneumophila) occur each year. However, only 5,000 cases are reported because of the disease’s nonspecific signs and symptoms. Ten percent of those infected die.

How is Legionnaires’ contracted? 

Legionella bacteria is most commonly caught by inhaling microscopic water droplets in the form of mist or vapor. The bacteria, which grow best in warm water, are primarily found in human-made environments.

Outbreaks have been linked to a range of sources, such as:

  • cooling towers in air conditioning systems
  • water systems
  • large plumbing systems
  • decorative fountains
  • mist machines
  • hot tubs
  • whirlpools
  • hot water tanks
  • hot water heaters
  • showers
  • sink faucets
  • swimming pools
  • equipment used in physical therapy.