Smoking and Legionnaire's Disease

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This article is part of the Tobacco portal on Sourcewatch funded from 2006 - 2009 by the American Legacy Foundation.

Legionnaire's Disease was a significant factor in the misinformation and corruption promoted by the Tobacco Institute and Philip Morris. It provided a both a scapegoat and a threat because it was promoted as the primary reason given by fake indoor air testing companies for radically boosting the rate of air exchange -- and refurbishing airconditioning units (HVAC systems) which, if smoking indoors had been prohibited, would have been adequate.

The legionella scare in 1976 raised general public awareness of the problems that could be associate with air-tight buildings, with air-conditioning systems totally responsible for the air exchange. Until just after World War II, most office buildings had no air conditioning, but with windows which could be opened. Following the war, with the return of servicemen, the rates of smoking skyrocketed, and so these two problems merged, making life extremely uncomfortable for non-smokers in offices and public spaces. By the 1980s, the pressure was coming on building owners and renters to ban smoking in their offices.

From 1985 on, the tobacco industry began to subsidise indoor air-testing companies to fake the results of the Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) measurements in order to down-play the problem of ETS (Environmental Tobacco Smoke). The only solution they could see was to persuade office owners/renters to boost the air-exchange rates -- but without ever admitting that second-hand tobacco smoke was the problem. The threat of Legionnaire's Disease was the perfect scare-campaign.

The tobacco industry's scare campaign was promoted with two slogans: the Sick Building Syndrome and the Tight Building Syndrome.

Are smokers more susceptible?

1976: This memo from the National Resources Defense Council relates the discovery of a strong correlation between smoking behavior and those who died of Legionnaire's Disease the 1976 breakout of the disease at a hotel. A telephone survey of the family members of the deceased revealed that 81 percent of the people who died in the incident were smokers. The author of the memo was Marc Reisner, who also authored the book Cadillac Desert.

    Legionnaires’ disease is a form of pneumonia caused by the bacteria Legionella pneumophila. The first recognized mass outbreak occurred at an American Legion (a war veteran's association) convention at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (USA) in 1976. 221 people attended the convention. The disease struck over 180, and 34 people died. The disease is believed to have originated in contaminated water used to cool the air in the hotel's air conditioning system. After this outbreak, the disease was named Legionnaires’ disease, or legionellosis.

The high rate of the disease among smokers in this instance may be due to a high incidence of smoking among ex-service members at this particular time, since smoking was long promoted in the U.S. military by the inclusion of cigarettes in service members rations.

    Title Interviews with Relatives and Friends of Victims of 'Legionnaire's Disease '
    Date 19761214 (December 14, 1976) [1]

1977 January The Centers for Disease Control had isolated the bacterium, and it turned out to be relatively common - one fifth to one-third of all New Yorkers have had the disease, most suffering only mild symptoms or none at all. The difference that made this bacterium deadly was in the susceptibility of those who became infected. [2]

1983 July Researchers at the Bergen-Passaic Lung Association reported that ...

Cigarette smokers are likely to be affected by Legionnaire's disease [and also] heavy drinkers and those suffering from other major diseases are found to be especially susceptible.
Investigators still cannot explain why outbreaks of the disease only occur occasionally, even when the bacteria are found to be present and other environmental indicators remain the same as in previous outbreaks. The bacteria appear to live in water but investigators speculate that water is not necessarily their original source. Air conditioners and water cooling towers have been the most publicized sources of the bacteria and probably are the sources most likely to affect the greatest numbers of people.

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