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Legionnaires' Disease at N.C. Mountain State Fair

image of legionella bacteria in lungs

One person has died, and more than 100 people have become ill with Legionnaires’ disease and Pontiac fever traced to a hot tubs exhibit at the N.C. Mountain State Fair in Fletcher, N.C., in September, according to multiple news reports.

Legionnaires’ disease is a type of pneumonia caused by bacteria known as Legionella. People usually contract the disease by inhaling mist or vapor from water that contains the bacteria. Pontiac fever is a milder infection without pneumonia caused by the same bacteria. The bacteria do not spread from person to person.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS) warned in an October 3 news release that 124 cases of Legionnaires’ disease and Pontiac fever had been reported among people who attended or worked at the N.C. Mountain State Fair. The fair took place Sept. 6–15 at the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center in Fletcher.

The personal injury attorneys of Hardison & Cochran in Raleigh are interested in speaking to anyone who may have been diagnosed with Legionnaires disease or Pontiac fever and been hospitalized after attending the N.C. Mountain State Fair. You may be eligible to recover compensation for your medical expenses and other losses. Please contact us for a free, no-obligation legal consultation.

What is Legionnaires’ Disease?

Legionella bacteria occur naturally in freshwater environments such as lakes and streams. It can become a health concern when it grows and spreads in manmade water systems. People who breathe in mist or water vapor containing the Legionella bacteria can become ill. 

Legionnaires’ disease is a serious type of pneumonia (lung infection). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says about one in 10 people who gets sick from Legionnaires’ disease will die.

Legionella was discovered after an outbreak in 1976 among people who went to a Philadelphia convention of the American Legion. Those who were affected suffered from a type of lung infection that eventually became known as Legionnaires’ disease.

In the United States, the rate of reported cases of Legionnaires’ disease has grown by nearly five and a half times since 2000, the CDC says. Because Legionnaires’ disease is likely underdiagnosed, this number may underestimate the true incidence.

Legionella in manmade water systems is usually found in:

  • Hot tubs that are not drained after each use
  • Showerheads and sink faucets
  • Cooling towers that are part of centralized air-cooling systems for building or industrial processes
  • Decorative fountains and water features
  • Hot water tanks and heaters
  • Large plumbing systems.

Legionella typically spreads in droplets small enough for people to inhale. People can also get sick by aspirating drinking water containing Legionella, but this is less common.

Could You Have Legionnaires’ Disease?

The symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease are much like those of other types of pneumonia:

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

Legionnaires’ disease may cause diarrhea, nausea and confusion.

Symptoms usually begin 2 to 10 days after being exposed to the bacteria, but it can take up to 14 days. Most healthy people exposed to Legionella do not get sick.

People at increased risk are:

  • 50 years old or older
  • Current or former smokers
  • People with a chronic lung disease such as emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • People with weak immune systems or who take drugs that weaken the immune system
  • People with cancer
  • People with underlying illnesses such as diabetes, kidney failure, or liver failure.

A chest x-ray can confirm a patient’s pneumonia, and a lab test of urine or a sample of sputum or washing from the lung can confirm Legionella as the cause.

Legionnaires’ disease is usually treated successfully with antibiotics. However, complications can cause lung failure and death.

Legionnaires’ at the North Carolina Mountain State Fair

The Asheville Citizen-Times reports that the individual who died was a Buncombe County resident and that 65% of those who became ill had to be hospitalized.

The Citizen-Times quoted an Oct. 2 NC DHHS news release that said about 60% of the confirmed Legionnaires’ patients are male and have a median age of 61 but range in age from 24-90 years old.

“Preliminary findings indicate that people who were diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease were much more likely to have visited the Davis Event Center while at the fair and much more likely to report having walked by the hot tub displays (in the Davis Event Center) compared to people who did not get sick,” the DHHS says.

People who were diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease were also more likely to have visited during the latter half of the fair.

State health officials said the findings suggest that low levels of Legionella present were able to grow in hot tubs or possibly some other source in the Davis Event Center leading to exposure through breathing in aerosolized water that contained the bacteria. The investigation is continuing.

A sink in the women’s room also reportedly tested positive for Legionella bacteria. But DHHS noted that little aerosolized water is created when people wash their hands in sinks, flush toilets or use similar water sources.

Health officials investigating after the fair ended said they found no significant sources of aerosolized water on the site. Officials have suspended rentals of the Davis Event Center while they “review and implement mitigation plans for the facility … out of an abundance of caution and to reassure event attendees, fairgoers and Ag Center employees that the center is safe for occupancy,” the DHHS says.

The North Carolina Mountain State Fair was established in 1994, and it typically attracts more than 150,000 visitors. The 2019 North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh is to be held October 17 to 27. Its attendance has neared or topped 1 million in recent years.

If you or your loved one has been diagnosed with Legionnaires disease or Pontiac fever and been hospitalized after attending the N.C. Mountain State Fair, contact a personal injury attorney at Hardison & Cochran to discuss your legal options. We offer a free consultation to review your case.

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