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Bacteria tied to Legionnaires’ disease found at American Airlines DFW hangars

The bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease was found in showers at American Airlines maintenance hanger at DFW International Airport last month.
The bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease was found in showers at American Airlines maintenance hanger at DFW International Airport last month.

American Airlines said it has found the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease in shower heads at its maintenance hangars at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

The Fort Worth-based carrier said it tested water samples at four hangars on the west side of the airport and found varying levels of legionella bacteria. One employee contracted Legionnaires’ disease but has since recovered. But there is no evidence the employee contracted it at the hangars, American said.

“We’ve been very transparent throughout this process with our employees, updating them regularly on what we are doing to address the issues,” said American spokesman Matt Miller. “We are working closely with DFW Airport and Tarrant County Public Health on long-term safety measures to ensure the cleanliness of the water at our maintenance hangars.”

American said it is placing filters on all showers and faucets at its hangars and plans to test the filters repeatedly and replace them every 30 days. It is also providing bottled water to employees even though ingesting legionella is not thought to cause the disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people contract Legionnaires’ disease by breathing in mist that contains the bacteria, such as in a shower, sauna or hot tub that has the legionella bacteria. Legionnaires’ disease is similar to pneumonia, causing shortness of breath, fever, muscle aches and headaches.

In a memo posted at its hangars Friday, American said it will hold employee meetings with Dr. David Krause, an expert on legionella, in the coming weeks to address concerns.

It added that it has reached out to local authorities to determine if the bacteria is residing in the water supply to the hangars.

“Since the bacteria is not localized, we believe larger action is needed to either increase the chlorine levels and/or disinfect the water supply,” the memo said.

Airport spokesman David Magaña said Tuesday there is no indication that other facilities at DFW are affected by legionella bacteria.

“DFW regularly and frequently conducts water sampling and testing, and the historical results have not indicated any violations of drinking water quality standards within the airport’s water distribution system,” Magaña said. “The safety and security of airport employees, customers and stakeholders is our top priority, and we will work diligently to ensure a safe environment at the airport.”

Tarrant County Public Health Director Vinny Taneja said his agency is working with American to discuss recommendations to address the legionella issue.

“It’s a bacteria that occurs in nature,” Taneja said. “Even though there might be exposure like this, 95 percent of individuals don’t get the disease.”

This year, there have been 16 cases of Legionnaires’ disease reported in Tarrant County, Taneja said. However, since the disease does not spread from person to person, there is no risk to the public from the American Airlines worker who contracted the illness.

To prevent the growth of legionella, Taneja suggested homeowners flush out their plumbing system every few weeks and run hot water through showerheads that are not used regularly.

Andrea Ahles: 817-390-7631, @Sky_Talk