Legionnaires' Disease Strikes Workers at Ford Plant in Ohio
March 16, 2001 -- Four workers at an Ohio engine casting plant of the Ford Motor Co. have now been diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease, and one of the patients has died.
A form of bacterial pneumonia, Legionnaires' disease got its name from its first known outbreak in a Philadelphia hotel that was hosting a convention of the Pennsylvania Department of the American Legion in 1976. Approximately 221 people contracted the disease, and 34 died.
Legionnaires' disease is most often contracted by inhaling mist from water sources such as whirlpools, baths, showers, and cooling towers that are contaminated with legionella bacteria. In 1976, the source of the bacterium was found to be contaminated water used to cool the air in the hotel's air conditioning system.
Cooling towers and evaporative condensers of large air conditioning systems have been associated with outbreaks of the disease, as well as hot tubs aboard cruise ships that have not been carefully maintained.
But there are other ways to catch Legionnaires' disease.
Health officials believe that last August, at least two people caught it through contaminated potting soil. It still is not known, however, if the germ became airborne and was inhaled, or if the people became ill after coming in direct contact with the soil. Similar cases have occurred in Australia and Japan.
The CDC usually learns of about 1,000 cases in the U.S. each year, but during the potting soil incident, experts noted the number of cases could actually be 10 to 15 times greater, since most go unrecognized and unreported. There is no record of the disease being passed from person to person, however.
Most often, the disease strikes cancer patients and others in poor health. But in the recent Ford outbreak, the worker who died March 9, Donald Tafoya, 61, was reported by his family to have been healthy his entire life. A resident of suburban Westlake, Tafoya had been with Ford for 27 years.
The CDC and the Ohio Department of Health joined local health officials and federal job-safety experts who arrived at Ford's plant earlier in the week.
The Cleveland Casting Plant, which employs 2,500 and makes engine parts, was closed late Wednesday and is scheduled to stay closed at least through the weekend.