January 18: Sick Buildings

2016/01/18 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1977 the causative agent for Legionnaires’ disease was identified.

What appeared to be an outbreak of pneumonia among attendees of a convention of the American Legion at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia six months earlier, in July 1976, soon became a national health scare.  For months doctors and public health officials scrambled to figure out what was causing the widespread pneumonia-like symptoms that resulted in 34 deaths at final count.

Ultimately it was determined that Legionellosis, a bacteria that resides in contaminated water (pooled in places like shower heads and air conditioning equipment), was the culprit.  It was the AC system at the Bellevue that was finally pointed to as the delivery system for the bacteria.  In addition to its role as a significant indicator of just how under-prepared heath officials were to handle such a widespread public concern, it was also one of the first times that the architecture profession and public alike considered the potential drawbacks to the engineering systems that, across time, had replaced natural means of regulating the environment in buildings.  A literature search reveals that within ten years of the outbreak at the Bellevue, the issue of Sick Building Syndrome quickly grew as a prominent concern.  Interesting, and perhaps ironic, that its monument is here in Philadelphia, which is also home to the PSFS, which opened to great renown as the country’s first completely air-conditioned skyscraper a half-century earlier.

image: the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, Philadelphia (from this source)

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