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Legionella and your duties as a Landlord

There has recently been a change in the HSE legislation regarding the control of legionnaires disease. This change now means the legislation applies to residential lettings, whereas before this legislation only covered larger commercial properties.

The changes now mean that all residential lettings must have a legionella risk assessment carried out to assess the risk of the properties, which then allows for a suitable control scheme to be implemented.

What is Legionnaires’ disease?

Legionellosis is the collective name given to the pneumonia-like illness caused by legionella bacteria. This includes the most serious legionnaires’ disease, as well as the similar but less serious conditions of Pontiac fever and Lochgoilhead fever. Legionnaires’ disease is a potentially fatal form of pneumonia and everyone is susceptible to infection. However, some people are at higher risk, including:

  • people over 45 years of age
  • smokers and heavy drinkers
  • people suffering from chronic respiratory or kidney disease
  • anyone with an impaired immune system

The bacterium Legionella pneumophila and related bacteria are common in natural water sources such as rivers, lakes and reservoirs, but usually in low numbers. They may also be found in purpose-built water systems such as cooling towers, evaporative condensers and whirlpool spas.

If conditions are favourable, the bacteria may grow increasing the risks of legionnaires’ disease. Therefore, it is important to control the risks by introducing measures to prevent this growth.

Where does it come from?

Legionella bacteria are widespread in natural water systems, e.g. rivers and ponds. However, the conditions are rarely right for people to catch the disease from these sources. Outbreaks of the illness occur from exposure to legionella growing in purpose-built systems where water is maintained at a temperature high enough to encourage growth, e.g. cooling towers, evaporative condensers, spa pools, and hot water systems used in all sorts of premises (work and domestic).

How do people get it?

People can catch legionnaires’ disease by inhaling small droplets of water, suspended in the air, containing the bacteria. Certain conditions increase the risk from legionella, including:

  • water temperature between 20–45 °C, which is suitable for growth
  • creating and spreading breathable droplets of water, e.g. aerosol created by a cooling tower, or water outlets
  • stored and/or re-circulated water
  • a source of nutrients for the organism e.g. presence of sludge, scale or fouling

While most cases of legionnaires’ disease are the result of infections caught in the UK, a number of cases occur abroad. Useful advice on travel can be found from the European Working Group for Legionella Infections (EWGLI).

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms are similar to those of flu, i.e. high temperature, fever and chills, cough, muscle pains and headache. In a severe case, there may also be pneumonia, and occasionally diarrhoea, as well as signs of mental confusion. Legionnaires’ disease is not known to spread from person to person.

As a landlord, what are my duties?

Organisations, or self-employed individuals, who provide residential accommodation or who are responsible for the water system(s) in their premises, are responsible for ensuring that the risk of exposure to legionella in those premises is properly controlled.

This means that they have a duty to assess the risk from exposure to legionella to their staff, residents, guests, tenants and customers by implementing appropriate control measures. This is especially important in residential buildings, where vulnerable people may be at risk, such as retirement flats, or where the accommodation is provided specifically for a group who may be susceptible to legionelloses.

Full details of your duties as a landlord or managing agent can be found in the revised Approved Code of Practice (ACOP) and guidance found here on the HSE website.

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