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Reopening & Water Safety CDC, EPA Offer Tips for Avoiding Mold & Other Contaminants

As cities and states begin the measured process of reopening and (hopefully) restarting their economies after the initial shock of the coronavirus pandemic, the boards and managers of multifamily buildings are doing the same -- and running into unanticipated challenges. Among those is the matter of how to restart utilities in amenities and other shared spaces that may have been unused or barely used for months. 

Of particular concern is water safety. According to guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) in early May, “The temporary shutdown or reduced operation of a building, and reductions in normal water use can create hazards for returning occupants. Two potential microbial hazards that should be considered prior to reopening after a period of inactivity are mold and Legionella (the cause of Legionnaires’ disease).”

The CDC says that the 'prolonged period' of reduced or no use that can give mold a foothold in pipes and other plumbing apparatus can be "days, weeks, or months, depending upon building-specific factors, season, and weather variables.” For Legionella, the growth period is a bit longer, “depending on plumbing-specific factors, disinfectant residuals, water heater temperature set points, water usage patterns, and preexisting Legionella colonization.” The release also pointed out that “additional hazards...may exist for returning occupants. These can include other microbial hazards, such as non-tuberculous mycobacteria, changes in water chemistry that lead to corrosion, leaching of metals (such as lead) into stagnant water, disinfection by-products, and sewer gases that enter buildings through dry sanitary sewer drain traps.”

According to Patrick Verwys, Executive VP of Triple Clear Water Solutions, a filtration specialist based in Needham, Massachusetts, “Buildings that were closed or operating at reduced occupancy for the last few months due to coronavirus restrictions create the perfect environment for bacteria and metal contaminants to infiltrate commercial plumbing systems.” For that reason, “In addition to establishing social distancing guidelines and new office procedures,” says Verwys, “we advise business owners, building managers and real estate developers to seriously consider implementing water safety procedures prior to reopening to keep their employees, tenants and customers safe.”

“Under-used or reduced-capacity water systems often lead to stagnant water in distribution channels and within buildings,” says Michael Fehr, PhD, co-founder of Fehr Solutions LLC, a water treatment service and consulting firm based in Geneva, Illinois. Mold and Legionella are the big worries, he agrees, but adds that “Increased levels of metal contaminants like iron and lead due to corrosion from older pipes [can also be] caused by stagnation. I strongly urge businesses reopening to have a plan for restoring their water systems, follow the CDC guidelines and consider adding water filtration systems that demonstrate removal of bacterial contaminants...at point of entry or point of use.” 

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