Listing existing cooling towers 'optional' in municipal registries, memo says
Public Health has left it to local governments to collect information sought after 2019 Moncton outbreak
New Brunswick has asked municipalities to voluntarily collect information on new cooling towers for locally held registries, saying listing existing ones is optional.
It's an inadequate approach says a former assistant commissioner with NYC Health, who was part of the response to one of the largest outbreaks in the United States. Chris Boyd, who worked on a report about how to implement registries, said the province's plan will result in ad hoc, piecemeal data collection.
"When you've made the historical record optional, then maybe one city will do it, one city will not and then you don't really have a full record," Boyd said in an interview after reviewing a February 2021 memo issued by the province.
Following a 2019 legionnaires' disease outbreak in Moncton, the regional medical officer of health recommended the government implement a cooling tower registry to help speed locate them for testing in future outbreaks.
Public Health tested cooling towers at 11 sites in Moncton this week as it looks for the source of another outbreak that's left seven sick. Test results are expected next week.
Jurisdictions like New York state, Quebec and the City of Vancouver also call for testing and maintenance, steps meant to prevent outbreaks of the severe form of pneumonia.
The towers are mechanical equipment with water and a fan that are part of the centralized air-cooling system for a variety of types of buildings. Bacteria can grow and spread into the community on mist from the towers carried by the wind. The illness doesn't spread person-to-person.
Tracking with Excel spreadsheets
However, the province isn't creating a provincewide registry. Instead, the February memo requested municipalities and regional service commissions start tracking new cooling towers through the building permit process using an Excel spreadsheet. Listing existing towers is described as optional.
The Feb. 22 memo was provided to CBC News by the province's Health Department and it offers new insight into its approach.
Boyd said a centralized approach would be favourable so there's a single source of information officials can turn to versus the "antiquated" use of spreadsheets across multiple communities, some that may not have the staff capacity to regularly update the information.
He said the registry should have contact information for building owners and people to call when Public Health needs to investigate an outbreak.
The memo says the local government organizations can distribute "educational material" provided by Public Health on proper cleaning and maintenance when issuing a building permit for structures with cooling towers.
The memo says it's anticipated the yearly number of new buildings with cooling towers will be small and concentrated in larger communities. It noted during the 2019 outbreak, there were about 35 buildings with cooling towers in Moncton, Dieppe and Riverview.
However, Boyd said rural areas where there may not be a municipal government shouldn't be overlooked as cooling towers can often be found on factories or processing plants.
"We should not be under the illusion that cooling towers are only associated with the city," Boyd said. "Cooling towers are located everywhere. If you've got a dairy farm, if you've got a juice processing plant, you've got other kinds of more intensive agricultural activity, you've likely got a cooling tower."
The memo doesn't say whether the province will mandate regular cleaning and maintenance.
"This doesn't direct the building owners to take any steps to control risk, and it doesn't direct the municipalities to do anything to understand whether or not risk is occurring," Boyd said of the memo.
Austin Henderson, a spokesperson for the City of Moncton, repeated the community's call for a provincially regulated registry instead of leaving it to municipalities.
Radio-Canada reported this week that the request to municipalities has created confusion. Spokespersons for Bathurst and Dieppe said their communities had not received the memo.
The memo appears to have been sent to various planning and building associations as well as regional service commissions.
Pascal Reboul, executive director of the Francophone municipalities association, said there should be regulations for maintenance and testing imposed by the province as it has responsibility for public health.
"It is not for the municipalities to intervene," Reboul told Radio-Canada. "They can be partners, of course. But there is a need to have leadership a little higher — at the provincial level in this case — to carry out actions that will prevent these problems and organize everything."
CBC has repeatedly requested an interview with Health Minister Dorothy Shephard, but no interview has been provided.
Bruce Macfarlane, a spokesperson for the department, said on Tuesday that Shephard was given a copy of a report on the 2019 outbreak to review before providing an interview in the "coming days."
CBC has requested a copy of the report's recommendations, but they have not been provided.
With files from Pascal Raiche-Nogue