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Source of Legionnaires' outbreak still unknown

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Source of Legionnaires' outbreak still unknown

By Jermont Terry. CREATED Aug 22, 2013 - UPDATED: Aug 22, 2013

MILWAUKEE - Ken Luedke of Greenfield is the first person to die from Legionnaires' Disease in 2013. The 56-year-old became ill quickly, and he didn’t recover from the sudden outbreak.

“There are more than likely many sources of the disease within the city and county of Milwaukee,” explained Tom Haupt, epidemiologist with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

One likely source of the outbreak centers around cooling towers found on top of buildings all over Milwaukee County.

“There is the possibility one cooling tower or several cooling towers are at fault,” said Haupt. He makes it clear the state doesn’t know the exact cause of the outbreak. He said there could anywhere from one to ten sources.

But those sources could be anywhere.

“Those are the cooling towers and those have been implicated as sources of outbreaks in the past,” said Haupt.

Cooling towers blow a mist that could carry the bacteria for miles. Currently the state doesn’t regulate or mandate regulations of cooling towers. Since that’s one potential cause of this recent Legionnaires' outbreak, the I-Team wanted to know why more isn’t being done to regulate the towers for clean air.

“We don't have the power in my division to do that. But it is something that needs to be addressed in the future,” said Haupt.

Wisconsin averages around 75 cases a year. 2013 has already surpassed that, and even the last outbreak of 2010. 88 statewide cases were reported as of August 22, 2013; compared to just 65 in 2010.

Milwaukee County has seen 52 cases so far this year. There were only 24 cases three years ago. With the 2010 outbreak, the state couldn’t pinpoint a case but they think one thing was to blame.

“It remains one of our theories that cooling towers are at fault,” said Huapt.

The I-Team asked since the DHS is the agency overseeing health why it simply doesn’t insist on better regulation. Haupt replied, “I think after they see this report they’ll see we have a potential issue going on with this.”

We should note the Legionnaires' bacteria are found in all warm water supplies. Experts said it can’t be eliminated, but you can keep it under control. The City of Milwaukee’s environmental health department did check some cooling towers they believed were possible sources. But that happened only after someone became sick.

DHS said there isn’t any regulation to make sure companies keep their own cooling towers clean.

Jermont Terry

Jermont Terry

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Jermont Terry joined the TODAY'S TMJ4 team in January 2011. He currently leads the TMJ4 I-Team as the investigative reporter.