Windscreen washer water risk | Legionella Consultants

What is the risk of catching Legionnaires’ disease from windscreen washer water?

The report in the news today refers to a study by the governments’ Health Protection Agency south west office who studied legionella bacteria in some drivers.

Their analysis was that where standard garage forecourt screen wash was added to the reservoir of water then legionella bacteria was NOT found. The conclusion is that there is a biocide (a chemical that kills bacteria) in the screen wash. Simply by using this it kills any legionella bacteria in the water. Expect sales of windscreen wash to increase!

It's normal for Legionella bacteria to found in 13-17% of all mains water supplies

They also report that where this screen wash isn’t used that legionella bacteria has been isolated from samples taken for analysis. This will come as no surprise to people who work in legionella control or laboratories that study this. It has been known for many years that legionella (and other bacteria) are common in water and are typically found in 13-17% of mains fed water samples. So assuming that the samples taken from car windscreen wash reservoirs were filled with tap water fed from the mains water system then this confirms existing knowledge. Many people simply top this up at home using mains water straight from the kitchen tap.

Unbalanced reporting causing unnecessary panic

The danger is that this report might cause unnecessary panic, concern and create a climate of over reaction in some drivers whether commercial or private. It could trigger the culture of claiming, suing for damages and being off work with illness whether real or imaginary. This will not help the situation.

It should be pointed out that Legionnaires’ disease is a rare form of pneumonia and that the attack rate is very low. This means that about 95% of the normal population would not contract the disease even if exposed to viable bacteria. So the chances of catching it are very small. It is also a disease that’s can be tested, diagnosed and treated successfully with a relatively low fatality rate.

Also the law applies to work premises under the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974, the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (as amended). So there is no need for anyone in a private vehicle to worry about any legal aspects. Those in the workplace can simply issue a policy of using windscreen wash in all work vehicles.

‘Health & Safety gone mad’

The other main danger is emphasising the issue of ‘Health & Safety gone mad’ which is prevalent in society. Much good work in reducing fatalities and accidents is overshadowed by a media spotlight on the perceived excessive restrictions. This story is ripe for comments of derision and risks undermining serious efforts to combat this preventable disease. It also comes on the day the new government indicates its desire to reduce so called unnecessary Health & Safety guidance which is seen by some as a lead weight on businesses. The timing of this report with the government announcement is not ideal.

The media should take responsibility for balanced reporting. The risk from legionella is statistically low. It is a preventable disease and adequate risk assessments, control measures, training and auditing can minimise the risks.

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