15 December 2016

NSW Health has released a discussion paper seeking comment on proposed changes to the regulation of water cooling systems to reduce the risk of Legionnaires’ disease in NSW.

The proposed changes are based on recommendations by an Expert Panel set up after the Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks in Sydney earlier this year to advise the NSW Chief Health Officer on whether new measures could strengthen prevention and control activities.

NSW Health's Chief Health Officer, Dr Kerry Chant, said the discussion paper focused on the control of Legionella pneumophila in cooling towers, which are part of water cooling systems that provide air-conditioning in large buildings.

“The Panel recognised that the current regulatory framework in NSW is already robust, requiring cooling tower operators to carry out monitoring and control measures in accordance with Australian Standards. It has recommended changes that further strengthen this framework,” Dr Chant said.

Currently, under the Australian Standards and NSW Public Health Act Regulations, cooling tower operators can choose whether to follow Part 2 of the Australian Standard that requires monthly inspection and at least six monthly cleaning, or Part 3 that requires monthly risk assessments based on monthly testing, with tailored control measures.

“The Panel recommended that cooling tower operators be required to adopt Part 3 of the Australian Standard – carry out monthly risk assessments and tailored control measures – and that these assessments must be recorded, and reviewed annually by an independent auditor.”

Dr Chant said the number of Legionnaires’ disease cases was relatively high this year, in part due to extensive promotion of testing by NSW Health public health units during the outbreaks, which increased the diagnosis of cases.

As at 15 December 2016, there have been 81 reported cases of Legionella pneumophila and 33 reported cases of Legionella longbeachae (which is not associated with cooling towers but with dust from soils and potting mix).

Various types of Legionella bacteria are commonly found in the environment and precautions must be taken to control the risk of disease. For people who run cooling towers, this means complying with public health regulations to ensure that they are maintained cleanly and safely. For gardeners, it means avoiding breathing in dust from potting mix and soil by following the manufacturers' warnings on potting mix labels, including: wetting down the potting mix before use; wearing gloves and a P2 mask when using potting mix; and washing hands after handling potting mix or soil, and before eating, drinking or smoking.

“This discussion paper provides an opportunity for stakeholders to provide comments and feedback on water cooling system regulation in NSW and we look forward to hearing people’s views,” Dr Chant said.

“Following the consultation period, it is expected that regulatory changes will be made in the first part of 2017.

“In the meantime, in preparation for changes to the regulations, I strongly encourage cooling tower operators to carefully review their operations and prepare to adopt Part 3 of the Australian Standard which they can already choose to carry out under the current regulations.”

Submissions can be made until Tuesday 7 February, 2017.