Scientists and Commission clash over detecting Legionella risk

EURACTIV organised a high-level forum to discuss which actions are needed to ensure safe tap water in the EU, securing that microbiological parameters are properly regulated in all Member States. [KETELSEN/EA.com]

Some researchers and scientists firmly criticised the European Commission’s approach on assessing the risk of Pneumonia-causing bacteria in the Drinking Water Directive (DWD) during an event organised at the European Parliament by EURACTIV.

The update process of the directive has now entered the so-called “trilogue” stage, where representatives from the 28 EU member states and the European Parliament sit together to strike a compromise, with assistance from the European Commission.

In particular, co-legislators are discussing which parameters could guarantee the highest possible level of health to restore citizens’ trust in tap water while avoiding unnecessary burdens on the water industry.

As Recalled by Parliament’s rapporteur for the DWD, the Luxembourgish centre-right MEP Christophe Hansen who hosted the event, an update of parameters and values was necessary because new contaminants like micro-plastics and endocrine disruptors have emerged since the directive entered into force more than 20 years ago.

The event was focused on the environmental and health considerations in the DWD, however, the debate became heated when the speakers touched on the topic of Legionnaires’ diseases and detecting Legionella risks.

In its original proposal backed by the Council, the Commission asked water suppliers not to check for a specific type of the bacteria, but the so-called Legionella species pluralis, basically all Legionella species that reproduce themselves where there is a warmer freshwater system in large public buildings.

At the event, the Commission stood up for its approach while scientists and researchers in the room strongly disagreed and suggested it would be better to test only for Legionella pneumophila, which causes a deadly form of pneumonia.

“We created a real risk-based approach for checking water, which is really providing better guarantees for consumers because we will regulate the entire water supply chain from groundwater up to your tap,” said Veronica Manfredi, the director of Quality of Life at the Commission’s DG ENVI.

But for scientists, the focus should not be focused on the concentration of bacteria only but mostly on the presence of Legionella pneumophila serogroup 1 that originates most of Legionnaires diseases infections.

There are more than 60 Legionella species officially described, but according to the most important health bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), 95% or more cases of Legionnaires’ diseases are caused by just one specific species, Legionella pneumophila.

Parliament’s rapporteur Hansen said that in the mandate voted during the past legislative term, MEPs wanted to focus on the most dangerous type, although the Council position backed the Commission’s proposal.

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Scientists’ opposition

The Commission defended its position saying it will offer people double protection for the broadest spectrum of Legionella types.

“We all agree in this room that Legionella pneumophila is the main responsible species for legionellosis,” said Veronica Manfredi, “what we said is that, when checking the risks, we will require water industry first to check all Legionella species and then double-check specifically on Legionella pneumophila.”

For scientists, granting the same standards to other pathogens means looking at harmless bacteria and other parameters not regulated at the same time as the one causing the deadly disease.

“And this costs a lot, not only in terms of money but also in terms of energy and time,” said  Professor Martin Exner, who is the director of the Institute for Hygiene and Public Health at University Clinic Bonn.

“I’m not a Legionella hunter,” he said. “I just want to protect people who are exposed and say to them the water in public buildings is safe.”

During the event, Philippe Hartemann from the School of Medicine of French University of Lorraine took the floor, saying that regulating on Legionella species “does not make sense.”

“I was in charge of Legionella regulation in France, where we got an outbreak of legionellosis in 1998. The ministry of environment decided to regulate and check all Legionella species,” he explained.

But then a new outbreak happened in 2000 in the Georges-Pompidou hospital in Paris. “Then we decided to regulate inside the buildings only with Legionella pneumophila and after 12 years we have no more relevant outbreaks,” he stressed.

Mandatory testing in France already requires detection for Legionella pneumophila since 2001 and reported cases in France rose at half the average rate of increases across 30 European countries in 2013-2017 time.

“I can understand costs or possibly timing issues in doing the checks, but I’m not 100% clear yet from a scientific viewpoint why checking all Legionella species doesn’t make sense if we really want to better protect the public health of our citizens,” replied the Commission’s Manfredi.

At the end of the debate, she said she had taken notes and would report back on the issue. “I don’t think any proposal we put forward lacks robust scientific evidence, but it is also good to listen to member states that have practical experience of outbreaks and have noticed that by focusing on Legionella pneumophila they got better results,” she concluded.

Climate change leads to spread of Pneumonia-causing bacteria, expert says

A warmer climate and Europe’s ageing population create a favourable breeding ground for legionella bacteria, which cause a type of pneumonia known as Legionnaires’ disease, Professor Martin Exner said in an interview.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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