Water expert sounds warning over hygiene as Covid-19 restrictions relax

Published: 15 October 2020 - 6:41 p.m.
By: Baset Asaba

At a time when the UAE and Israel are holding in depth talks on food and water security, experts have raised questions over water hygiene safeguards as Middle East hotels, malls and offices reopen with the relaxing of Covid-19 restrictions.

Culligan Middle East has expressed concerns about whether sufficient legionella testing is being carried out as water systems shut down for months are switched on again.

“Our main concern is with domestic water systems, as apartments as well as hotel rooms are being vacated and left empty for a period of time,” says the company’s technical director, Rodger Macfarlane, a vastly experienced chemical engineer.

“The question is, are enough checks being implemented by the entities that are in the process of reopening? Even as an absolute bare minimum, are the water outlets, the spray taps and showers, being flushed through before apartments and hotel rooms are reopened? The same question has to be asked for offices and restaurants in malls.”

Adds Macfarlane: “Municipalities in the region don’t appear to be telling business that they have to do anything special, so they’re not. In fact the opposite is the case.

“Cost cutting by some is leading to a reduction in the amount of legionella testing. None are approaching us asking for extra testing. We would have expected businesses to be at least opting for on-site quick checks for legionella before opening a building and putting a water system online.

“A full legionella check on the other hand is a laboratory process which takes around a week just for incubation. This means that if you’re opening a building, you’re not going to know if your water is safe until seven days after you’ve taken the sample, by which time the building could have been open for a few days.”

Macfarlane says the biggest potential sources of legionella in the region - cooling towers and fountains - are well protected. “These are monitored and controlled very closely indeed in terms of legionella. The pass mark is very high.”

As UAE-Israeli talks continue towards enhancing cooperation in food and water-security related projects, Macfarlane is quick to point out that, in addition to ensuring enough water is available “water security crucially involves taking precautions to guarantee the quality and safety of this water.”

This means using the best technology and expertise available, but Macfarlane points to two factors which can undermine efforts to safeguard against legionella in the region.

One is a lack of consistency across sectors in awareness of the risk of legionella and the willingness to invest in monitoring and countering the threat.

The other is that, in many cases, official guidelines fall short because they do not go beyond testing, recording and reporting.

Says Macfarlane: “While they are fine within themselves, existing municipality guidelines need to be extended to include and prioritise system surveys, water safety plans and management plans, rather than focusing only on testing and reacting to failed results.

“Generally, the healthcare sector displays the best level of awareness. The bigger healthcare facilities in particular have water hygiene well covered because they have processes in place which include risk assessment and management systems.

“On the other hand, some sectors can fall short in terms of awareness and in some exceptional cases it can be non-existent.

“In the commercial and residential sectors, much depends on who is managing the building. Some buildings will be looked after by top line property management or facilities management companies who are very much the best in class.

Adds Macfarlane: “But while they have systems and procedures in place which ensure this is all well audited and controlled, the smaller companies and smaller hotels who manage themselves will literally do barely enough to meet the requirements of the guidelines.

“They’re not breaking any laws. They are not doing anything wrong, but they are reactive rather than proactive. The proactive ones are where we see very little in terms of positive results.”

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