New Brunswick

Province keeps sites tested for legionella secret, cites financial impact

The New Brunswick government is keeping locations tested for legionella bacteria in Moncton over the summer secret, citing the potential financial impact.

16 people became sick over the summer during outbreak in Moncton

A letter signed by Health Minister Ted Flemming says the province is keeping the information about locations tested during an outbreak of legionnaires' disease secret, citing the potential financial impact to a third party. (CBC)

The New Brunswick government is keeping locations tested for legionella bacteria in Moncton over the summer secret citing the potential financial impact, a move two opposition MLAs say is unacceptable. 

CBC News filed a right to information request with the province during an outbreak of legionnaires' disease, a severe form of pneumonia. The request sought documents related to locations tested for the bacteria that causes the illness. The single-page document has those locations blacked out. 

A letter from Health Minister Ted Flemming says the information was withheld from the public using a section of the Right to Information law because it "could reasonably be expected to result in significant financial loss or gain to a third party."

Flemming did not provide an interview.

Green Party Leader David Coon says the provincial government should let the public know which sites in Moncton were tested for legionella bacteria. (Joe McDonald/CBC)

Green Party Leader David Coon said the government's position is "unacceptable." 

"It's critical in an open and democratic society that our public health department levels with New Brunswickers," Coon said in an interview. "In this case, they should identify the locations they tested and locations they found the bacteria." 

Liberal MLA Jean-Claude D'Amours, who serves as the party's health critic, also called for the information to be released.

"I really believe that in a case like that, it's really a serious matter and government should be as much as transparent as they can," D'Amours said. "They've been pretty silent since the crisis started in the Moncton area."

Secrecy has surrounded the source of the outbreak that infected 16 and has left at least one person in the hospital months after contracting the illness.  

Dr. Yves Léger, a regional medical officer of health, previously told reporters that cooling towers in western Moncton were tested and confirmed to be the source of the outbreak.

The locations of sites tested were blacked out in a document released to CBC News.

But he refused to release the specific location, saying it could cause people to avoid the area, even though the issue has been fixed.  

Several of the people who became ill have spoken publicly to say they're upset the province has kept the source secret. Several met last weekend to sign paperwork as a preliminary step to pursue a class action lawsuit.  

Ray Wagner, a lawyer with a Halifax-based law firm specializing in class action lawsuits, told CBC in September he was in contact with people who have become ill and was interested in taking on such a case. Nothing has been filed in court yet. 

Cooling towers are components of large building air conditioning systems. Water in the towers that stays at a certain temperature can serve as a breeding ground for legionella bacteria. 

The bacteria is found in many natural waterways, but can cause a person to become sick when water droplets containing the bacteria are inhaled. 

Léger previously said the mist can spread in the wind over several kilometres, meaning it wouldn't just affect people at the source site. 

The document released to CBC indicates that six locations were tested between Aug. 6 and Aug. 12.

Léger has previously said the tower that was confirmed to be the source of the outbreak was cleaned as of Aug. 13. 

CBC has previously reported that Organigram, one of Canada's major cannabis producers based in the Moncton industrial park, found "elevated bacteria counts" in several of its cooling towers in mid-August.

An Aug. 13 email to company staff obtained by CBC says the tower was shut down Aug. 12 and cleaned. The email does not say what type of bacteria was found.

The company has not confirmed or denied it was the source of the outbreak and has refused to comment on the email. 

There's no indication the bacteria in the cooling towers affected the company's cannabis, which is sold across the country. 

The company employs more than 700 people. 

An Aug. 13 email to Organigram employees says testing found "elevated bacteria counts" in its new cooling tower system and that they were cleaned starting the night before the email was sent. (Shane Magee/CBC)

Unlike Quebec, New Brunswick lacks regulations for cooling towers requiring regular maintenance and inspection. 

Léger has said public health will carry out a review of what went well and what could be improved following the Moncton outbreak, which was declared over in mid-September. He said one recommendation may include rules similar to those in Quebec. 

D'Amours, the Liberal MLA, said the province should implement similar measures.

About the Author

Shane Magee

Reporter

Shane Magee is a Moncton-based reporter for CBC.

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