How to Communicate Legionella Risk to Customers and the Community

For decades, water safety regulations have focused mainly on public water supplies, and on the contaminants that make that water unsafe to drink — such as fecal bacteria like coliforms and E. coli. But because Legionnaires' disease is transmitted by inhalation or aspiration of bacteria rather than by drinking contaminated water, preventive measures needed to reduce its risk may be less familiar.

Educating your customers — and the greater public, too — about this disease is a key first step in preventing outbreaks and keeping families safe.

Communication Tips:
  • Be proactive, not just reactive. Communicating before an incident occurs can help build a better relationship with customers and get them thinking about prevention.
  • Take the opportunity to reach out to customers when Legionella pneumophila is in the news. This can get more eyes on your content, and customers appreciate being in the loop.
  • Emphasize that additional information and support are available to help customers develop a water safety plan. Provide resources from reliable institutions and connections to local partners, such as accredited labs, water treaters with Certified Water Treaters on staff, etc.

What Customers Need to Know

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Legionnaires' disease cases have risen nearly five and a half times since 2000, making prevention critical. Customers may not know that even if water has been treated, the primary bacteria responsible for Legionnaires' disease, Legionella pneumophila, can still multiply within the plumbing of their home or business. To prevent outbreaks, efforts must be made by players at each step in the water ecosystem.

For instance, utilities companies can help reduce Legionnaires' disease cases by supporting the development of water safety plans for at-risk buildings in their communities. Owners and managers of large buildings may already be aware of the disease but may not know how to develop a water safety plan — or the idea of writing one may seem daunting. They also might not understand the importance of regular testing for Legionella pneumophila to ensure that their plans are effectively controlling this risk. Homeowners may not understand that even their residential water systems could be sources of Legionella pneumophila growth. Utilities companies can leverage their tremendous water quality expertise to provide advice and resources to both types of customers.

Who Needs Education Regarding Legionella pneumophila Risk?

Everyone. But building owners, engineers, and facility managers at commercial, industrial, and large residential buildings should be your target audience for Legionella pneumophila education. Especially important are those involved in maintaining water systems at health care facilities and assisted living communities, which serve people at a greater risk of contracting Legionnaires' disease and often have complex plumbing systems.

Although Legionella pneumophila growth in larger buildings has potential to endanger more people, homeowners and managers of smaller buildings also need to know the facts so they can reduce the risk of this often fatal disease.

How to Spread the Word

The best way to deliver Legionella pneumophila information depends on the audience. While bill stuffers and social media posts are useful for communicating with homeowners, they tend not to reach commercial and institutional building managers the same way.

A study by The Water Research Foundation found that in-person meetings or personalized letters, emails, and phone calls are very effective means of communicating with building officials. Plus, these are prime opportunities to build stronger relationships with current or future customers. Websites, mailed brochures, and email newsletters that direct readers back to your website can be effective ways to reach both customers in large buildings and members of the general public.

Your company's website is a great platform to list more in-depth information about Legionnaires' disease, as well as water safety best practices. Your website should also direct customers to other resources, such as the CDC's toolkit, which provides building owners and facilities managers guidance on how to develop effective water safety plans. You might also provide a list of links to local accredited labs that can help water safety teams determine their sampling and testing requirements and perform needed services.

When to Reach Out

Don't wait until an outbreak is in the news or, worse, affects one of your customers. Ideally, communication about Legionnaires' disease includes not only reactive communication (messages offered in response to an incident or crisis) but also proactive communication about how building owners and managers can help prevent the disease before an incident occurs.

Some utilities lab managers may hesitate to reach out before a Legionella outbreak occurs, fearing that it could cause unnecessary alarm. Contrary to this perception, The Water Research Foundation study found that customers appreciate proactive outreach and the opportunity to learn more about risks which may affect them.

Reactive communication is also very important. In the instance of an outbreak, consider using social media as an opportunity to share information and direct followers back to your website. Small efforts like this can help your site get on people's radar, boost your reputation, and can also help prevent future outbreaks, since your followers will now be more informed about the disease and the steps for creating, validating and updating a water management plan. And if one of your customers has an outbreak, resources from your site could help them determine the best response plan.

Know Your Own Water Quality

Although Legionella pneumophila only becomes dangerous when it proliferates and becomes aerosolized through buildings plumbing systems and cooling towers, utilities companies should also be prepared to respond to the inevitable questions about their own water quality. Record all EPA-regulated parameters and proactive testing you've performed to ensure Legionella pneumophila in your distribution system is well-controlled.

This becomes particularly important at points where water enters facilities with vulnerable populations, such as hospitals and long-term care facilities. Showcase your high level of quality standard and inform your customers if you have a system in place to notify high-risk facilities when they experience a water quality event that could increase their Legionnaires' disease risk or if they get meaningful positive test results.

What to Include in Your Messaging

Whatever delivery approach you choose to educate customers, your materials should be informative and include helpful tips that will empower readers to take action. Be sure to discuss:

  • Shared responsibility: Emphasize that while the utilities labs ensure that water entering a building's pipes is safe, property owners still need to create a solid water safety plan.
  • Facts about Legionnaires' disease: Include information on Legionnaires' disease, why and where problems occur in building water systems, who is at greatest risk for contracting it, and CDC guidance on when a consumer should consider consulting a medical provider.
  • Preventive measures that building owners can take: Explain how routine testing of building and cooling tower water for Legionella pneumophila is essential for determining whether the facility's safety measures are effective.
  • An offer of support: Convey that the utilities labs are available to provide guidance and support in developing a water safety plan and may potentially help with testing water samples after a plan has been implemented.

With Legionnaires' rates rising, effective communication is more critical than ever. Proactive education can drive the implementation of preventative measures, which can ultimately reduce the chances of an outbreak in your customers' facilities.


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Ilana Goldowitz Jimenez
Ilana Goldowitz Jimenez

Ilana Goldowitz Jimenez is a science writer based in Rochester, NY. She has worked as a writer for three years and in scientific research for more than seven years in the fields of infectious disease, public health, and agriculture. Ilana received her PhD from Harvard University’s chemical biology program and her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University's plant sciences program. She can be contacted through her website at www.ilanajwriter.com.

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