By Anthony Robbins

On 14 June 2010 stories appeared on the BBC and AFP. Google news displayed 70 story links. The European Journal of Epidemiology had published the research article online on 8 June. The very nice study strongly suggests that about 20% of sporadic cases of Legionnaire’s disease in England and Wales may be caused by bacteria in windscreen wiper fluid. The exposure can be eliminated easily by adding “screenwash.”

It appears that the Legionella bacteria (Legionella pneumophila) can thrive in the warmed water that is held for the windshield washer system, often located in the engine compartment, in many motor vehicles. When sprayed, this water presumably forms droplets containing the bacteria, spreading the infection much as happened from the cooling system at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in 1976 in Philadelphia during the American Legion convention. The chemicals that are often added to wiper fluid to improve cleaning appear to be sufficient to prevent growth or survival of the bacteria.

Public health rarely finds such simple ways to prevent disease, but why did the world hear about this only after the article appeared in a scientific journal, rather than from the Health Protection Agency (where three of the authors appear to work) and other public health agencies around the world? The article was submitted more than 6 months ago, 11 December 2009.

Anthony Robbins, a Professor of Public Health at Tufts University School of Medicine and co-editor of the Journal of Public Health Policy, directed the Vermont, then the Colorado state health departments, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health before serving as professional staff to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He also directed the US National Vaccine Program and edited Public Health Reports.

Comments

  1. #1 Frank Mirer
    June 14, 2010

    There’s a lot of legionnaire’s sources around. Rarely used showers are probably the most prominent. Any standing or recirculating warm water source from which aerosol can be generated is a risk. Legionella mostly require proior colonization from other microorganisms to bloom.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    June 14, 2010

    Oh, OK, good. When I first saw this blog post, thought I was going to have to stop drinking windshield washer fluid … But I see now that I just have to stop breathing it in. I can do that.

    But seriously, this is very interesting. I wonder how many other warm long-term water storage spots are out there other than the already implicated ones.

  3. #3 Joe
    June 15, 2010

    I didn’t know there was recirculated water in the washer fluid. Are people adding water to the washer fluid reservoir? The wiper fluid here in the northern US contains methanol in sufficient concentration that I doubt any bacteria could survive in it.

  4. #4 Thad
    June 15, 2010

    Phew…our -40C wiper fluid in Canada is a good fraction ethanol or methanol. No bugs there.

  5. #5 Frank Mirer
    June 16, 2010

    Joe: the wiper fluid reservoir is standing water, which gets warm in the summer but less than 140 F which kills legionella, or maybe the micro organisms in which legionella incubates.

    Who knows whether the alcohol in wiper fluid is in high enough concentration to kill microorganisms.

  6. #6 E.B, Cdn ex-pat in Britain
    June 16, 2010

    In the UK and Europe, drivers do not always use windshield washer fluid (aka ‘screenwash’).

    In temperate conditions (anything above 0, which is most of the year across Europe), they use plain water.

    Only those who drive regularly in snow will consider buying antifreeze, seasonally; summer ‘bugwash’ which is common in the US and Canada is largely uknown. (Winter tires, winter oil and brake fluid, -40 antifreeze and ice scrapers are similarly mysterious, known only through US movies, and judged as an unnecessary expense…until drivers are trapped by a 1-inch snowfall, when the wailing and gnashing of teeth begins.)

    So it’s very possible for UK drivers to be exposed to a fine mist of tepid stagnant water from sluicing the windshield occasionally, windows rolled down in summer, listening to the World Cup scores.

  7. #7 Legionnaires Disease
    June 22, 2010

    Absolutely shocking, it is commonly known that institutions such as hospitals, prisons etc have always had higher incidences of legionella but who would have thought the everyday motorist was at risk also!

  8. #8 Fred Abrey
    October 22, 2010

    I had Legionnaire disease March 26th 2010 and nearly died on the night of March 31-April 1 2010.My blood became septic and my kidneys were failing. I finally made it out of the hospital and have made a full recovery. The doctors told me I was very lucky. I am still trying to figure out where I got it here in Denver Metro Colorado. I live in Littleton and work in Golden CO. This is an interesting article since I work in a car dealership and fill my own washer fluid. If anyone else know of others who had this in Colorado I would be interested to know.