By Wes VenteicherORDER REPRINT→
CalPERS has found dangerous bacteria at significant levels in water throughout its headquarters buildings in downtown Sacramento, but has only notified employees about one test result from a year and a half ago, according to emails and reports obtained by The Sacramento Bee.
The bacteria legionella was identified at high levels in a shower head in a men’s locker room in August 2019, Human Resources Division Chief Michelle Tucker told employees in an email Friday.
Not disclosed in Tucker’s email were more recent test results showing the bacteria has been found at significant levels in six of seven hot water sources in one building and in multiple sources at two other buildings at the pension system’s Q Street campus.
The bacteria can infect people when it is inhaled in vapor or reaches the lungs by accident while drinking. It is often harmless, but can sometimes cause a deadly form of pneumonia called Legionnaires’ disease.
An anonymous whistleblower from Colliers International, the company that has managed the buildings for decades, first shared the more extensive findings with a CalPERS investigator last summer, according to copies of emails provided to The Bee.
On Oct. 30, the whistleblower sent CalPERS Chief Executive Officer Marcie Frost, Board of Administration President Henry Jones and attorney Matt Jacobs an email with summer 2020 test results that he said the company hadn’t shared with CalPERS.
The results showed the bacteria had been found at moderately high levels in three showers and two sinks at CalPERS’ Lincoln Plaza North building and at lower levels in two drinking fountains, two ice machines and a cafe sink in the building.
Colliers had also identified the bacteria in the plaza’s east and west buildings, according to the results. In the west building, legionella showed up at moderately high levels in two gym showers and a sink and at lower levels in a kitchen ice machine on the building’s fifth floor.
It was found at lower levels in a daycare kitchen sink and a cafe sink in the east building.
The extent of the findings suggests the bacteria is a “very serious issue” in the buildings, said Tim Keane, a Pennsylvania-based legionella expert who has consulted on some of the worst outbreaks in the U.S. and sits on a committee that writes HVAC industry standards for legionella.
“That’s basically saying the whole system is systemically colonized with legionella,” Keane said.
The 2020 results weren’t shared with employees. The earlier results, from 2019, were shared because they showed higher levels of the bacteria than those identified in 2020, CalPERS spokesman Brad Pacheco Tuesday.
CalPERS in messages to employees emphasized legionella’s low risks for healthy people and what it has characterized as low levels of bacteria identified in many of the tests. Most of the retirement system’s employees have been working remotely since shortly after the coronavirus pandemic arrived in March, minimizing potential exposures since then.
Even given the extent of the findings, the risk of serious illness would have been low, according to a National Academy of Sciences Engineering and Medicine report.
But there is “no known safe level of legionella in building water systems,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cases of Legionnaires’ disease have been found in connection with even low levels of the bacteria, according to the CDC, suggesting a continuing risk until CalPERS minimizes the bacteria.
As significant as the levels at which the bacteria is found is how widespread it is in a building, said Keane,
The CalPERS findings from summer 2020 show that legionella was found in 86% of hot water sources in the north building and in 71% of hot water sources in the east and west buildings.
Board President Henry Jones said he inquired with CalPERS staff after receiving the October email about legionella in the water and was told the issue had been addressed.
“It was taken care of and I moved on,” Jones said.
CalPERS started investigating the whistleblower’s findings after receiving them, but, under guidance from Cal-OSHA, didn’t notify employees about the 2020 findings since they weren’t at “high” levels, spokesman Wayne Davis said.
The pension system had difficulty obtaining detailed test results from Colliers after starting its investigation, Pacheco said.
“Colliers wasn’t as forthcoming as they should have been in this process, and we were also told, or led to believe, that we did not have legionella in the past on property,” Pacheco said.
Yet after state employee union SEIU Local 1000 asked in early December for 2019 test results, CalPERS obtained them from Colliers and then notified employees of those results, Pacheco said.
CalPERS also emailed about 250 people who used the men’s locker room from January through August of 2019, according to Tucker’s email. About 2,800 people typically work in the three buildings on Q Street.
CalPERS hasn’t identified a reason Colliers didn’t share test results earlier, Pacheco said.
“It was clear that a ball was dropped,” he said, adding, “expectations have been reset.”
The system’s latest contract with Colliers expires in May, Davis said. The system is accepting proposals.
Pacheco and Davis referred more specific questions to Colliers. Elliot Golan, a Colliers spokesman, referred questions to Solana Tanabe, a spokeswoman with San Francisco-based public relations firm Allison+Partners.
Tanabe provided neither specific answers to emailed questions nor an interview. She provided the following statement on behalf of Colliers.
“Upon receiving a positive test result in 2019, the Colliers engineering team closed and treated the site of the result immediately in accordance with state guidelines. However, this information was not communicated to CalPERS in a timely fashion. Among Colliers’ core values is to do what’s right for our clients, people and communities, and we remain committed to CalPERS and the safety of their personnel.”
Many office building owners don’t test for legionella at all. The bacteria is thought to be relatively common in big, old buildings with extensive piping systems, but testing is rare except in hospitals, long-term care facilities and some hotels, according to studies.
Legionnaires’ disease can cause serious illness primarily in people who are over 50, who smoke or have underlying health conditions. Illnesses from legionella, which also include the less-serious Pontiac fever, have been on the rise for the last 20 years, but no one really knows why, according to the CDC. Regulators have released new guidelines in recent years but haven’t passed new rules.
Tucker’s email said Colliers cleaned “all shower heads” in August 2019, and that “since then,” CalPERS has instituted weekly cleaning of water fountains and ice dispensers and weekly flushing of water lines in restrooms, locker rooms, coffee stations, drinking fountains and break rooms, along with flushing faucets and showers with “very hot water” every night.
Keane said those steps fall short of an aggressive response.
“Seeing these numbers, I would disinfect the entire building’s water system, hot and cold,” Keane said.
Because the bacteria can hide out in remote corners of piping, Keane said it’s critical to perform repeat tests after eradication efforts to determine whether they worked.
CalPERS doesn’t seem to be doing that. Davis said the system tests the water every six months and tests cooling towers — the most common source of legionella outbreaks — each month.
Davis said the system is still waiting on December test results.
This story was originally publishedJanuary 20, 2021 10:42 AM.