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Numerous ferries test for high levels of legionella in the water

After rounds of testing, numerous ferries have come back positive for high levels of legionella in the water.

A safety bulletin was released by Washington State Ferries warning of the condition of the water and notifying passengers that the affected areas have been isolated, including taped off sinks.

“It’s pretty standard,” said WSF Communication Director Ian Sterling. “Leave your house, your RV, or ferry boat sitting for a long time and that water can become stagnant and you can build some bad things up in there.”

The water on the WSF fleet has become stagnant due to the galley and water fountains being shut off during the pandemic, which left the water to sit for 18 months or longer. Sterling said WSF now will routinely check its water for bacteria or other issues.

“We flush out the system and treat it and off to the race we go,” he said.

Legionella bacteria, if inhaled, can lead to legionnaires pneumonia. This pneumonia does not spread from person to person, only through airborne particulates of legionella. Those above the age of 50 or those with lung conditions are the most at-risk for catching the disease. Some of the symptoms include cough, fever, chills, shortness of breath, muscle aches and headaches. Legionella can also cause Pontiac fever, which is a mild flu-like illness.

“Apparently it is not harmful if you drink it or wash your hair with it or whatever, but if it gets airborne into aerosol, like if you’re spraying dishes or taking a shower, then it can cause some trouble,” Sterling said, urging passengers to not be too concerned about the situation.

This means that flushing the ferry toilets or splashes from handwashing may be problematic under these circumstances. Wearing masks can lessen some of the impacts.

The safety bulletin stated that ways to inhibit the growth of legionella include treatment of water with sodium hypochlorite, maintaining potable water temperatures that limit Legionella’s growth and flushing parts of the water system that have not seen use for extended periods of time to prevent water stagnation. WSF is also using supplemental water treatment to the potable water.

What Sterling said he sees as the larger issue, however, is that the condition of the water is making it harder for them to reopen the galleys, which they would like to do soon once they can gather enough staff.

“We were hoping we could reopen them by summer, but the Delta strain threw a wrench in those plans,” he said.