DISTRIBUTE: A council employee said thousands of plants handed out to residents from Queens Park Nursery might have contained Legionella bacteria.
DISTRIBUTE: A council employee said thousands of plants handed out to residents from Queens Park Nursery might have contained Legionella bacteria. Cordell Richardson

Public 'put at risk' by Legionella in council plants: Worker

THERE are fears thousands of plants distributed to residents by Ipswich City Council could contain harmful levels of the potentially deadly Legionella bacteria.

The concern comes after two of the council's employees responsible for potting the plants tested positive to Legionella in June.

In the past financial year, the council handed out about 115,000 plants through its Free Plant Program.

A council works employee, who has remained anonymous because they are not authorised to speak, said the public had been put at risk by the council's handling of the Legionella infection.

The employee said thousands of residents who collected, and came into contact with the council's free plants, were unaware of the potentially dangerous levels of Legionella.

On June 21 a nursery employee notified their manager after testing positive to high levels of the bacteria.

Despite the notice, the council's workplace health and safety supervisor was not informed of the result until about two weeks later.

The health and safety officer ordered the council's nursery planting operations be shut down while an investigation was carried out.

A second, senior nursery employee was diagnosed about two weeks after the first.

Despite the positive result, the infected worker was told by a council manager to stop talking about the Legionella issue.

"They told him to leave it alone and stop fear mongering," another employee said.

Under the Free Plant Program, urban residents are eligible to receive six plants per year while people living in peri-urban areas can access 30.

Close-ups of legionella bacteria.
Close-ups of legionella bacteria.

In Australia, the most common species known to cause human disease are Legionella pneumophila, which is found in bodies of water, and Legionella longbeachae, found in soil and compost.

Both can cause Legionnaires' disease.

People who are exposed to the bacteria may not become unwell or they may have a mild, short-lived illness.

Those who become seriously unwell are usually over 50 or have risk factors including cigarette smoking or a weak immune system.

According to the Communicable Diseases Network, consideration should be given to notifying the public if traces of Legionella are located.

Despite two employees contracting Legionella, no public notice was issued by the council.

The council's Works, Parks and Recreation chief operating officer Bryce Hines said the council acted properly.

"We've sought advice from state public health experts and carried out extensive testing to ensure all avenues of a possible source were explored," he said.

"Exposure to the dust or aerosols associated with potting mix may present a risk to workers, as is the case with any nursery which uses potting mix.

"Any plant which anybody takes home from any nursery anywhere - providing it contains potting mix - carries the same very low and negligible risk of exposure to L. longbeachae."

According to West Moreton Health, there have been two or less cases of Legionella longbeachae each year since 2014.

West Moreton Health declined to disclose details of individual Legionella cases.

Ipswich City Council has refused to provide details about the "extensive testing" for Legionella, or the results.

The QT has lodged a right to information request.

The council said independent testing for the waterborne legionella bacteria showed it was either not detected or at an extremely low level.

One low-level result from a tank at Queens Park was recorded, with the water "treated and disposed of immediately".

Despite two employees testing positive for the soil-borne Legionella bacteria, no testing was conducted.

"No testing was carried out for the soil-borne bacteria as it is extremely common and likely to be found in the potting mix," a council spokesman said.

Mr Hines said actions taken by the council to mitigate the risk of Legionella among staff were consistent with State Government health advice.

Nursery staff complained they were not notified of their colleagues' positive results for Legionella until several weeks later.

The employee said staff were not trained how to deal with risks associated with potting mix.

About three weeks after the Legionella infection a procedure for safe handling of the potting mix was established.

Staff were advised to "use gloves when handling potting mix and soil... wash hands afterwards", and told to use a respirator if soil or dust became airborne.

The council sought advice from Queensland Health on the employees' contamination "to further reassure staff that the public health risk was negligible".

The advice was sought in early October - about three months after the employee first reported his diagnosis.

Nursery employees also say their health has been put at risk after a supervisor pumped contaminated water into the irrigation tanks, which was then sprayed throughout the nursery.

A complaint about the hazardous water and conduct of council management was recently raised with the new advisory panel.

This week Victoria's acting chief health officer issued a warning to gardeners about the risk of contracting legionnaires' disease from potting mix after growing numbers of infections from Legionella longbeachae.

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