The outbreak of Legionnaires ' disease that has been responsible for claiming seven lives in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, in 2002 has created much controversy and confusion as a council official has been charged with manslaughter yesterday in connection. The design service manager for Barrow borough council has also been charged with breaching health and safety regulations.
Those who died in the outbreak, all from Barrow, were: June Miles, 56; Richard Macaulay, 88; Georgina Somerville, 54; Harriet Low, 74; Wendy Millburn, 56; Elizabeth Dixon, 80; and Christine Merewood, 55.
Legionnaires' disease is caused by a bacterium that most commonly spreads through air conditioning units. It is more common in summer and was first identified in 1976 at a Philadelphia hotel where the American Legion organisation was holding a meeting. Young people usually recover completely from the disease that has a mortality rate of 10 to 15 %.
The investigators believe that the outbreak could be caused by an air conditioning unit at the council's Forum 28 centre, opposite Barrow town hall. The outbreak has been regarded to be one of the worst known in Britain, infecting 140 other people.
A criminal investigation has been under way since the legionnaires' outbreak to determine the underlying cause. The move has been initiated following discussions with the Health and Safety Executive and the Crown Prosecution Service.
The council authorities in response have said that legal advice is being sought regarding the issue and are reluctant to comment about the situation. The council authorities would have to appear for a hearing on February 24.
This however is not the first time a case is being lodged on the same grounds. A Somerset company, IMCO Plastics Ltd, and its managing director, Michael Lewis, were charged with the offence after three people died of the disease in 1998. The cause of the outbreak was traced to the factory's cooling towers. The company was fined £70,000 in November after pleading guilty to two counts of breaching health and safety legislation by failing to maintain the water cooling system at the factory.
There would have a period of watchful waiting before any decision or opinion can be raised regarding the charges.