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Legionnaires’ Disease Traced to Supermarket Mist Machine

January 11, 1990

BOGALUSA, La. (AP) _ Two nationwide supermarket chains said they have stopped using a vegetable- freshening mist machine blamed for killing at least two people and infecting dozens of others with Legionnaires’ disease.

The virus was diagnosed here last November at the Winn-Dixie supermarket, one of three supermarkets in the southeast Louisiana town of 16,000, said Dr. Louise McFarland, the state epidemiologist.

She said Winn-Dixie was ″most cooperative″ in the investigation.

″This is the first time a community outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease has been traced to a mist machine of any type,″ she said. ″I don’t think anyone would ever have suspected it.″

The maker of the mist machine, L.W. Beal of Portland, Maine, denied Wednesday that his machine was at fault for the outbreak.

″The Legionnaires virus is in the water in that area. You’ll find it in any kind of machine that uses water and is not properly cleaned,″ Beal said.

″If a machine is properly cleaned you won’t have a problem,″ he said. ″If you have an ice cream machine and you don’t clean it properly, you can’t blame an outbreak of salmonella on the manufacturer of the machine.″

Beal said his company supplies misters to most of the major grocery chains and has had no problem with other systems.

A spokesman for Safeway said all misting machines at its 1,200 stores, mostly in the western United States and Canada, have been turned off as a precaution and were being cleaned.

″We have two types,″ Bob Bradford, spokesman for the Oakland, Calif.- based chain, said late Wednesday. ″We are not sure if we have the one involved. ... We just thought it would be best to turn them off until further notice.″

Winn-Dixie Stores Inc., based in Jacksonville, Fla., has 1,250 stores in 13 Sun Belt states, said Lewis ″Lew″ Libby, vice president of the company.

″The mister that we had here, we had in 97 stores. And we’ve taken them all out,″ Libby said.

Libby said the Bogalusa machine had been installed more than a year before the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak.

The stores which had been using mist machines have returned to spraying vegetables and fruit with a hose to keep them fresh, he said.

He said other supermarket chains used mist machines, but he did not know if they were made by Beal.

Legionnaires’ disease, first identified in 1976 after an outbreak at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia killed 34 people, is caused by a bacteria that often thrives in cool, standing water found in such places as water towers or air conditioning ducts. The germ usually enters the lungs through droplets from cooling systems.

McFarland said 34 cases were confirmed in Bogalusa, and 20 to 30 other people may have had the disease. Eight people died of pneumonia during the November outbreak, but only two were confirmed as Legionnaires’ disease, said Dr. Thomas Farley, an epidemiologist on McFarland’s staff.

The Bogalusa mist machine wasn’t checked out until the store was implicated by interviews with the 70 people who got sick and about 150 who hadn’t.

″The interviews indicated that people who were sick were more likely to go there than the group of people who were not sick,″ said Farley. ″That was the clue that led us there.″

Another doctor on McFarland’s staff checked out the store, said Farley. ″He went into the store and looked up and down and all around for any source of water droplets in the air. He discovered this machine and took a culture.″

Bacteria grown from that water matched bacteria from some of the patients, McFarland said.

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