Environmental Protection

EEC, water utilities urge caution when re-opening buildings after COVID-19 closures

By Brad Bowman and Kirsten Delamarter 

From wearing masks to tracking temperatures, there are plenty of health considerations for Kentuckians as they transition from “healthy at home” to “healthy at work,” but here is one you may not have thought of: stagnant water in the workplace. 

During periods of little to no water usage — like the recent coronavirus-related closures — water sits stagnant within the building’s plumbing, where it becomes susceptible to issues such as discoloration, unpleasant odor and microbial growth. Among the concerns associated with stagnant water is Legionnaire’s Disease, a rare but potentially fatal type of pneumonia. 

“As buildings reopen that have been closed during the COVID-19-related shutdown, it is important to consider the quality of the drinking water within the plumbing of that building,” said Kentucky Division of Water environmental scientist Jackie Logsdon. 

To minimize risks associated with stagnant water, the Kentucky Division of Water has issued guidance for workplaces, retailers and other buildings that have been underutilized during the coronavirus pandemic.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and PreventionLegionella — the bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s disease — poses a health risk when it contaminates water droplets small enough for people to inhale. 

Outbreaks typically occur in facilities with large water systems such as hotels, hospitals and long-term care facilities. In most cases, the CDC determined exposure was preventable with a proper water management plan

One of the ways to ensure safe drinking water following a prolonged closured is to flush the plumbing, Logsdon said. This involves running all appliances that use water — such as faucets, water fountains and toilets — in order to move old water out of the building and bring fresh water in. 

Video courtesy of Louisville Water Company

The Division of Water’s guidance is consistent with that issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as water utilities across the Commonwealth. 

In mid-April, when utilities began to realize that commercial customers would be facing prolonged coronavirus-related closures, Louisville Water Company began preparing for water quality issues businesses could experience when they eventually reopened. 

“We’ve never had this many buildings empty for such a long period of time,” said Louisville Water Company Vice President of Communications and Marketing Kelley Dearing-Smith. “When you think about it, schools close for Christmas. Daycares shut down. Even a boutique might close for a long weekend or something, but this has been — for some of these businesses — over two months.”  

Louisville Water Company created materials for its roughly 24,000 commercial customers, detailing the importance of flushing pipes after a prolonged building closure.  

Kentucky American Water, which provides water and wastewater services to 14 Kentucky counties and about 9,000 commercial customer accounts, issued similar guidance to its customers, particularly large building operators via social media, email blasts, notices to public officials and chambers of commerce and more, said Susan Lancho, external affairs manager for Kentucky American Water. 

In addition to flushing, the Division recommends property managers contact local water suppliers to ensure water drawn into the buildings has adequate disinfectant residuals to combat possible bacterial growth.  

Public drinking water systems in the U.S. are required to add a disinfectant as part of the treatment process, which ensures that the water delivered to customers is free of bacteria, such as Legionella. For more information, view the Energy and Environment Cabinet’s water guidance for safely reopening here

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