M-U partners with Purdue for water plan

WEST MILTON — In a multi-agency collaborative effort, Milton-Union Exempted Village Schools addressed its district’s recent positive test of Legionella bacteria found in its water system with the help of national water research experts and intense testing led by Purdue University.

School buildings around the nation shut their doors abruptly last spring in response to the coronavirus pandemic. This month, as schools began their plans to reopen to staff and students, another health threat was detected — this time in the water.

Purdue University agreed to test the district’s water free of charge through grants from the National Science Foundation.

Superintendent Dr. Brad Ritchey said the district partnered with the university to do extensive testing and lab work at no cost to the district. The district will also work with university to have a plan in place should the district need to shut its doors again for longer than two weeks to prevent water-borne issues like Legionella. Ritchey said the district received world-class analysis and assistance from Purdue to rectify the issue, making it safe for all students and staff as they head into the new school year on Sept. 8.

“We are the benefactors of all the work Purdue has done for us,” Ritchey said.

Last Tuesday, the district was notified by Purdue University of five areas of its building that had elevated levels of Legionella bacteria. When water is stagnate, Legionella bacteria can grow and could lead to Legionnaires’ disease, a respiratory disease that is contracted when one inhales water vapor such as steam from a shower or mist from hot tubs. Legionella cannot make one sick through food or drinking water. Milton-Union, like all school districts, was vacant for five months with the exception of less than 10 staff members, including Dr. Ritchey. What was unusual about Milton’s case was the Legionella was found in the cold water side, not just the hot water side.

Village utilities supervisor Tim Swartztrauber assisted in the testing process. He said in his three decades of city service work, he had never had the issue of Legionella come up in his career. He took part in the university’s testing and learned more about the issue along with school district leaders.

“That was the greatest part, (Purdue) did it on their own dime (using grants),” Swartztrauber said Thursday.

According to information obtained by a public information request from the village of West Milton, the five areas tested “over the limit” for Legionella on Milton-Union’s campus include a water fountain located on the first floor of the elementary in a hallway outside of the gymnasium and the sink in the high school staff workroom.

Three other locations tested over the “suggested limit” include a custodial closet on the first floor of the elementary, a pot filler in food services and a sink in an athletic area. Milton-Union’s operations manager Dan Baisden said areas, like the pot fillers, will be closed off and removed due to them being used either very little if at all.

The staff break room sink had the highest detected levels of the five. Public areas and water fountains have been closed off since the district shut down in March and will continue to do so due to COVID-19, Ritchey said.

Following the chlorine shock treatment and flushing on Friday, all areas, including the five, will be retested in 72 hours and again in three weeks, according to the university’s outline.

“You have to make sure the water is good all the way through the building,” Swartztrauber said. He also said he plans on flushing and testing West Milton’s senior center, a building that also has been shuttered for a long period of time before its doors open again.

In a New York Times article published Thursday, Purdue University’s Dr. Andrew Whelton said schools can do as much or as little of general preventive steps and claim to be compliant due to vague compliance guidelines.

Whelton and his students led the testing and analysis effort, visiting the Milton-Union campus several times, collecting more than 1,000 samples all over its campus.

According to the Times article, “health authorities are required to report to the C.D.C. cases of illness caused by Legionella, but not the presence of the bacteria.”

Dr. Whelton told Times reporters that if more schools tested for the bacteria, more would likely detect the problem. He also said parents should question their school leaders about their water testing.

Baisden said Purdue University will also submit a water maintenance plan for the district’s use in the future.

Baisden said the university’s work and collaboration with the Ohio EPA and other support agencies was appreciated and the work exceeds what other districts have done who had the same issue.

According to Miami County Public Health’s Vicky Knisley-Henry, no other school districts have reported positive tests for Legionella. Local school districts Oakwood, Kettering City Schools, Englewood Elementary, Vandalia Butler and Northmont also found the germ in their water systems and all followed similar disinfectant plans to flush water systems prior to school opening.