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Windshield Washer Fluid Linked To Legionnaires' Disease

A new study says window washer fluid might contain the bacteria that causes a severe form of pneumonia known as Legionnaires.
Posted at 8:29 PM, May 19, 2014

Using your car's windshield washer seems pretty harmless, but a new study says washer fluid might be the perfect home for the bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease, a severe form of pneumonia.

The study, presented at the annual meeting for the American Society for Microbiology, examined the blue fluid in school buses in an Arizona school district.

They found Legionella bacteria in the majority of those busses, and learned it could survive there for more than a year. The bacteria could infect anyone sitting behind the wheel, since even the fumes from the fluid could carry the disease. (Via Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, YouTube /expertvillage)

"We saw 83 percent of samples we collected had Legionella in them. Seventy-five percent had Legionella pneumophila, which causes about 95 percent of Legionnaires' diseases cases in America." (Via American Society for Microbiology)

That was study author and Arizona State University Ph.D. student Otto Schwake, who also warned about the liquid's potential hazards in this ASM news release"Washer fluid spray can release potentially dangerous numbers of these bacteria into the air. These results suggest that automobiles may serve as a source of transmission for Legionella infections."

And, LiveScience says that previous research suggests people who drove were at a greater risk. "In one study ... almost 20 percent of cases of Legionnaires' disease in the United Kingdom that were not related to hospitals or outbreaks were associated with car windshield washer fluid."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the bacterium got its name when it infected dozens of people at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia in 1976. It's usually found in warm water and is spread by inhaling mist rather than by person-to-person contact.

Still, Schwake says he isn't suggesting we stop driving, just that we need to learn more about how the disease spreads this way.

“We are exposed to an enormous number and variety of microbes every day from countless sources, the overwhelmingly vast majority of which are harmless. ... That being said, unknown sources of pathogen transmission certainly exist and need to be studied." (Via Businessweek)