Windscreen water could be legionnaires' disease risk

Motorists who do not use screenwash for their windscreen wipers risk getting potentially deadly legionnaires' disease, a study revealed today.

The warning comes after health experts discovered professional drivers were five times more likely to be infected with the dangerous bug, which is found in warm, stagnant water.

Drivers are now being urged to add screenwash to their wiper water after traces of the legionella bacterium were found in one in five cars that did not have the additive - but in no cars that did.

It is feared that around 20% of legionnaires' disease cases could arise from this type of exposure.

The findings come from a Health Protection Agency-led study, which looked at why people at the wheel were more likely to be infected.

Most at risk were found to be those driving a van, people who drive through industrial areas, and people who often had the car window open.

But the "most intriguing" higher-risk group was drivers not using screenwash - which kills off the legionella bug, the study authors found.

They said: "Not adding screenwash to windscreen wiper fluid is a previously unidentified risk factor and appears to be strongly associated with community acquired sporadic cases of legionnaires' disease.

"We estimated that around 20% of community acquired sporadic cases could be attributed to this exposure."

The report - published in the European Journal of Epidemiology - added: "This simple public health advice may be of worldwide relevance in reducing morbidity and mortality from Legionnaires' disease."

Stagnant, warm water is a breeding ground for the legionella bacterium, which causes a potentially fatal lung infection.

It is contracted when small droplets of contaminated water are breathed in, and cannot spread from person to person.

Last year there were 345 cases in England and Wales - although some infections were caught overseas.

An estimated 10% of people who contract legionnaires' disease will die from complications arising from infection.

Bacteriology expert Professor Hugh Pennington told the BBC: "This is a bug which lives in the environment and will take advantage of warm water systems that are not cleaned out.

"Windscreen fluid stops the bug from growing.

"If you can prevent it with something this simple then it's a no brainer really."

What is legionnaires' disease?

:: Legionnaires' disease is a potentially fatal lung infection that is caused by the bacteria legionella.

:: The bacteria is commonly found in any freshwater environment such as rivers and lakes but can sometimes find their way into artificial water supply systems.

:: It is contracted when small droplets of contaminated water are breathed in. It cannot spread from person to person.

:: Between 400 and 550 cases have been reported in England and Wales in the last couple of years - however, around one third of these cases were infected outside of England and Wales through travel to another country.

:: An estimated 10% of people who contract legionnaires' disease will die from complications arising from infection.

:: Symptoms of the disease include: headaches, muscle pain, high fever, chills, a persistent cough, shortness of breath and chest pains.

:: It is estimated that symptoms can start between two and 10 days after exposure to the infection.

:: The disease is treated by intravenous antibiotics.

:: Large buildings such as hotels, hospitals and museums are more vulnerable to legionella contamination because they have larger, more complex water supply systems, which can let the contamination spread quickly.

:: Everyone is potentially vulnerable to the disease but those who may experience a more severe form of infection include the elderly, smokers, diabetes sufferers, those with kidney disease and cancer patients.

:: The condition is called legionnaires' disease because it was first identified after a mass outbreak at a hotel hosting a convention of the American Legion organisation.

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