Society and Culture

The Real Causes of the Legionnaires’ Outbreak Stem From Environmental Racism

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While many media outlets and health officials alike are hailing the end of the outbreak of Legionnaires’ desire in the South Bronx, many more are celebrating the Mayor’s signing of a new bill to prevent future outbreaks of such diseases. The piece of legislation requires (not will require: it was effective immediately) landlords to “register, inspect and clean air-conditioning cooling towers on a regular basis, as well as to certify those towers.”

However, this legislation–while important–is very late in coming. The New York Times reported that,

The city’s Health Department was slow off the mark this time. And it had advance warning. Last January, eight cases were reported at Co-op City, a housing complex in the Bronx, and traced to a cooling tower. In May, nine cases in Flushing, Queens, were tied to a cooling tower and a water system in a senior citizens’ center. Although the equipment involved in these small clusters was quickly disinfected, no concerted effort was made by the city to inspect or monitor cooling towers more broadly.

Significantly, the bacteria behind the potentially lethal disease is inhaled far and wide across the city (the bacteria itself is often not lethal) often spewed from the cooling towers usually located on the roofs of buildings that provide water for air-conditioning units. Yet, the lack of concern that the Health Department showed for the outbreaks in the Bronx last January–those in Queens were quickly addressed–mirrors the cause of the most recent outbreak that killed 12 people: environmental racism. This form of racism led to a very slow response to this latest outbreak, which spurred resistance from South Bronx residents.

The generally abysmal health conditions in the South Bronx caused by environmentally racist policies and practices created the perfect storm in the bodies of those who died in the outbreak: pre-existing health conditions such as asthma and heart disease killed these twelve people just as much as the bacteria.

So all this emphasis on the cooling towers is important. It is important that policies are changed so that these towers do not literally spew poison.

But poison is not only being spewed by cooling towers in the South Bronx. It is being spewed by corporate policies that produce obscene amounts of pollution; it is being spewed by power plants that are concentrated in the area so as not to infect predominately white neighborhoods; it is being spewed by the industrial sites that cause asthma and generally make the air unbreatheable.

Until these kinds of poison are addressed–the kinds of poison that the government and corporations directly and deliberately channel into neighborhoods of color–then the new law to “protect” people from Legionnaires’ disease will simply draw attention away from the overall failure to protect South Bronx residents from even worse, chronic epidemics.

Jennifer Polish
Jennifer Polish is an English PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center in NYC, where she studies non/human animals and the racialization of dis/ability in young adult literature. When she’s not yelling at the computer because Netflix is loading too slowly, she is editing her novel, doing activist-y things, running, or giving the computer a break and yelling at books instead. Contact Jennifer at



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