What Are Opportunistic Waterborne Pathogens?

While Legionella bacteria pose significant threats to health and safety in facilities, there are several other opportunistic waterborne pathogens that also pose a risk and should be considered in your water management program.

The term “opportunistic pathogens” refers to a group of microorganisms that do not usually infect healthy hosts but may produce infections in immunodepressed persons, those with underlying diseases, and those with advanced age. Hospitals and nursing homes have numerous occupants that fit these descriptions but on a given day any facility could have at least one occupant that falls into these groups. That is why all facilities must be aware of opportunistic pathogens in their water systems and consider testing, mitigation and/or remediation as needed.

Legionella is a considered an opportunistic pathogen that exists in building water systems. Examples of other opportunistic waterborne pathogens include Pseudomonas, Acinetobacter, Burkholderia, Stenotrophomonas, nontuberculous Mycobacteria (NTM), and fungi.

Like Legionella, these waterborne pathogens require ongoing consideration and inclusion in a water management plan because they cannot be completely removed from water or inactivated by the municipal treatment plant. Moreover, upon entering your building or facility, these opportunistic pathogens may increase in number depending on environmental and water conditions such as temperature, disinfectant levels, biofilm, and nutrient levels.

These opportunistic waterborne pathogens can cause a variety of infections including those in the bloodstream, brain, spinal cord, lungs, heart, bones and other parts of the body. These can be serious and even life-threatening infections.

It is important to note that simply complying with current plumbing codes does not guarantee control of waterborne pathogens in your facility. For example, it is known that some testing (for example, the standard HPC bacteria test) can demonstrate compliance with a plumbing code but this test may not correlate with the presence of Legionella. In other words, your facility may pass the test but still have dangerous levels of pathogens. Therefore, proactive and appropriate testing and mitigation that is focused on these opportunistic waterborne pathogens is important for ensuring the safety of those in your facility.

What does this mean for you? First, you should have an appropriate water management program in place, as doing so is a critical part of minimizing the risk from Legionella and other opportunistic waterborne pathogens. Secondly, if you have an outbreak of disease in your facility, it is important that you consult with water experts at Nancrede Engineering. This is not a do-it-yourself project. Opportunistic waterborne pathogens require unique testing for each pathogen, and require robust remediation that addresses your facility’s specific risk profile and environmental conditions.

Contact Nancrede Engineering with your questions about Legionella and other opportunistic waterborne pathogens. Also ask about our free basic water testing.