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EPA tests Ann Arbor lab facility for Legionnaires’ disease bacteria after employee falls ill

UPDATE: Legionella bacteria was not detected in any of the samples taken during environmental sampling at the NVFEL in October, Erin Birgfeld, the director of communications at the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, told Federal News Network on Nov. 13. 

The Environmental Protection Agency is warning several hundred employees at the National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory (NVFEL) in Ann Arbor, Michigan, about a confirmed case of Legionnaires’ disease, but advising employees to still report to their usual workstations as it awaits test results.

Leila Cook, the associate director of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality at the NVFEL, told staff in an email on Friday, Oct. 19 that one facility employee was diagnosed with Legionella pneumonia, better known as Legionnaires’ disease.

“Although the source of the exposure is not known, it is possible that the exposure occurred at the NVFEL,” Cook wrote in the memo obtained by Federal News Network. “Environmental sampling has been conducted at the facility, however, results will not be available for several weeks.”

Cook sent out the first email to Ann Arbor NVFEL staff on Oct. 11, the same day the agency learned about the case of Legionella pneumonia. EPA officials have provided multiple updates since that time.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, symptoms for Legionnaires’ disease usually begin two-to-10 days after being exposed to the Legionella bacteria. However, the CDC advises people to watch for symptoms about two weeks after exposure.

Erin Birgfeld, the director of communications at the Office of Transportation and Air Quality, verified Monday that one person who works at the NVFEL lab had a confirmed case of Legionella pneumonia.

“During the week of Oct. 15, we held two all hands meetings to educate staff about the illness,” she said in an email. “We also are providing information to staff via email and through communications with supervisors,” she said.

While the EPA could not confirm if the lab is the source of the illness pending test results, Birgfeld said the agency has been working closely with local public health officials to take the proper actions to protect personnel and guests.

“We also are, out of an abundance of caution, reaching out to those who visited the lab building in the last few weeks via email to share information with them as well,” Birgfeld said.

According to the Oct. 19 memo written by Cook, Legionella bacteria “rarely cause illness,” and don’t typically spread person-to-person. Rather, the disease is caused by breathing in droplets of water that contain the bacteria.

“The public health agency officials that we are working with have not advised us to quarantine any areas of our space, or tell staff to change their work schedule or location in any way,” Birgfeld said.  “We have taken additional precautions, however, including turning off the showers and the car wash in the facility since those areas produce aerosolized water.”

The employee diagnosed with Legionella pneumonia has since recovered and works in the facility’s laboratory building.

“The majority of staff work in the office building, a subset of the employees who are based in the office either attend meetings or walk through the laboratory in the course of regular business,” Birgfeld said. “This is why we have shared all information with all staff including those stationed in D.C.”

The EPA has not learned of any new cases of Legionella pneumonia since the first case was reported to the agency by local health authorities.

“We are working with local public health agencies who are monitoring the situation,” Birgfeld said.

She added that the EPA had a qualified environmental testing firm obtain samples from the facility on Oct. 17. The agency expects to get test results back by Nov. 1.

Based on advice from the Washtenaw County Public Health Department, the EPA urges employees that exhibit symptoms to see their health care providers.

The CDC lists the following as symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Headaches

Several EPA employees confirmed to Federal News Network that they received the email notification.

One EPA employee who works in Region 5, but not at the NVFEL, said he learned about the incident from a coworker, then forwarded the message to American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, which represents about 900 agency employees in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

About 450 people work in the National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory and its office building complex.

Mike Mikulka, the president of AFGE Local 704, confirmed that he sent out an all-hands email on Monday morning, shortly after 11 a.m.

Mikulka added that memos from Cook, one of which he forwarded to regional EPA employees, were likely sent “out of an abundance of caution.”

Birgfeld clarified that EPA management reached out to employees represented by AFGE Local 704, but AFGE Council 238 represents NVFEL employees, in addition to environmental protection specialists at EPA headquarters in Washington and other parts of the country.

“We have communicated about this issue with Region 5 about this because some of their staff currently stationed elsewhere in [Michigan] are expected to move to our offices in the next few months, and at least one recently visited the facility,” Birgfeld said.

In February, Federal News Network reported that the EPA planned to shutter the Large Lakes Reseach Station, a facility located in Grosse Ile, Michigan, that’s owned by the agency’s Office of Research and Development (ORD).

The closure would move about 20 emergency response employees to the NVFEL.

Mikulka said an employee represented by AFGE Local 704 visited the laboratory this summer, and added that employees now working out of the Large Lakes Reseach Station would start working in the Ann Arbor facility in March 2019.

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