Protecting public health is our highest priority. As many of us return to offices, gyms and indoor gatherings, Multnomah County and the City of Portland bureaus of Water and Development Services have this important message for property owners and building managers: Take steps now to protect people who live, work, play and worship in buildings that haven’t been used as much during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many large buildings have been empty or underused because of COVID-19 restrictions. The water delivered to these buildings by the Portland Water Bureau has always been safe to drink and was not impacted by the COVID-19 virus. However, many of the unoccupied buildings in Portland have used less water than normal during the pandemic. Using less water and letting water sit in pipes for long periods of time without flushing may create water quality problems in buildings which can have negative impacts on human health.
Stagnant conditions in your building can lead to an increase in lead in water and cause other water quality issues. When water sits in pipes for an extended period of time, conditions can become favorable for the growth of potentially deadly bacteria, such as Legionella. Legionella can sometimes exist in small numbers in building plumbing systems. However, under the right conditions, such as when water is stagnant and warm, it can cause an increase and result in illness. Legionnaires’ Disease, a potentially deadly pneumonia caused by Legionella, is the number one cause of waterborne diseases in the United States. It makes people sick by being inhaled into the lungs in small water droplets, such as steam from showers or mist from sinks. Hot tubs, decorative fountains or cooling towers can also be sources of Legionella. Legionnaires’ Disease requires hospitalization and can be fatal for 10 to 25 percent of people affected by it.
During periods of reduced occupancy and as buildings prepare for reopening, building managers should follow these steps to protect health and maintain the water quality in buildings. Make sure to use protective equipment when performing building maintenance.
- Run all water at least weekly. The goal is to refresh all the water in the building pipes with fresh water from the water mains underneath the street.
- Check your hot water system. Set your hot water heater at 140 degrees. When flushing hot water taps, run the water until it reaches its highest temperature.
- Take steps before reopening. The CDC has eight steps to take before your business or building reopens. Find them at portland.gov/water/WQbuilding.
Portland Fire & Rescue recommends that building owners and facility managers perform these steps to safely reopen buildings: portland.gov/fire/permits-inspections/reopening-building-checklist.
“Legionnaires’ Disease doesn’t spread from person-to-person. And most healthy people exposed to Legionella do not get sick,” said Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines. “But for people with poor underlying health - for example because of cancer, diabetes, lung disease or immune system problems - breathing in very small droplets of water with the bacteria can put them at risk.”
Vines asked everyone to follow the steps below to refresh water systems. Early symptoms of Legionnaires' include fever, tiredness, muscle aches, and headache. More advanced symptoms include coughing and chest pain. Many people sick with Legionella also have diarrhea.
Legionella is treatable with common antibiotics, so seeking medical care right away is important.
About Multnomah County Public Health
Multnomah County Public Health is responsible for protecting the health of the public, including through mandated functions, and reporting to the County Board of Health. Public Health focuses on pressing public health issues and sets health policy and system changes that address them. Priority issues include racial and ethnic disparities in leading causes of preventable death, disease, illness, and injury; economic and social conditions; and COVID-19 impacts.
About the Portland Water Bureau
The Portland Water Bureau serves water to almost a million people in the Portland area. Portland’s water system includes two great water sources, 53 tanks and reservoirs, and 2,200 miles of pipes. With 600 employees working on everything from water treatment to customer service, the Water Bureau is committed to serving excellent water every minute of every day.
About the Bureau of Development Services
The Bureau of Development Services promotes safety, livability and economic vitality through efficient and collaborative application of building and development codes. More information is available at portland.gov/bds.
Multnomah County Public Health: Kate Yeiser, Communications Coordinator | 503-410-4524 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Portland Water Bureau: Jaymee Cuti, Public Information Officer | 503-823-8064 | email@example.com
Bureau of Development Services: Ken Ray, Public Information Officer | 503-865-6236 | firstname.lastname@example.org