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.