In a school the children are the main priority, teaching them yes, but also keeping them healthy and safe. Children are at school for six or more hours every day, in that time they have to use the facilities and will need to eat and drink, so it is likely that they will drink (or eat something cooked in) some of the water.  For this reason, it is incredibly important to make sure that the water tank is kept well-maintained, cleaned and disinfected so that the water the children do ingest is safe.  Drinking water that is contaminated could have serious health repercussions for the children, causing them to become very ill. 

How could children get ill from the water?

Water naturally contains a bacteria called Legionella pneumophila.  This is found in natural water sources like lakes and streams, but in such a small quantity that it is usually harmless.  The same bacteria can also be found in purpose-built water systems, both hot and cold, including spa pools, evaporative condensers and cooling towers, to name a few.  However, in purpose-built water systems that aren’t cleaned and disinfected regularly, the bacteria can actually become harmful. This bacterium is more likely to form in purpose-built systems that maintain a water temperature of between 20-45 °C.  It is also more likely to occur in systems that store and/or recirculate water and systems that create and disperse water droplets, like a water outlet. Another cause of this bacteria is things that are deposited into the water, such as rust, sludge, biofilms and organic matters.

What kind of illnesses could children get from the water?

Legionella bacteria is the cause of two illnesses:

  1. Legionnaires’ disease: a serious type of pneumonia (lung infection). Legionnaires’ disease has an incubation period of 2 to 10 days, if left untreated it usually worsens during the first week and in the most serious of cases, it can be fatal, causing progressive pneumonia, respiratory failure, shock and multi-organ failure.
  2. Pontiac fever: a mild flu-like illness that can cause fever, headache and muscle aches. It does not cause pneumonia and in most cases, after being diagnosed, it is left untreated, to clear up by itself.  In some cases, treatment may be required, but generally, the illness is mild and is not a fatal condition.

Both of these illnesses are caused by legionella bacteria, and although one is fairly mild, the other can be very severe, and there’s no way of knowing which illness people might get, which is why it is best to be safe and keep that water tank clean.

Are some children more at risk than others?

Yes, some children will be more at risk than others are, but for the most part, adults are more seriously impacted.  If you are running a school, you not only have the children to consider, but also the staff.  So, here is a list of who is more likely to be affected by this bacterium:

  • Adults and children who have an impaired immune system. As a teaching body, you may not be aware of children’s medical conditions (if these conditions don’t impact their schooling), so you cannot rule out that there may be some children with a compromised immune system in your school.
  • Children and adults suffering from diabetes, heart disease or lung problems. Again, you may not be aware if a child has any of these problems, so it is always better to air on the side of caution.
  • Children or adults suffering from kidney disease or chronic respiratory problems.
  • Adults over 45 years of age.
  • Adults who are smokers and heavy drinkers. Hopefully, this one does not apply to the children, but it could very well apply to your staff.

Who is responsible for making sure the school water tank is clean?

The simple answer is the school is responsible for ensuring their water system is clean and disinfected properly.  This means the school must make sure they are having their water systems fully inspected and the water tested regularly, with the entire system being cleaned and disinfected as often as is required.

How often should the water tank be cleaned?

The frequency of cleaning a water system really depends on how often that system is being used.  In a school it is going to be used regularly, so we recommend inspecting the water every six months and cleaning the system annually.

How do you disinfect a water tank?

You don’t, only a trained professional should disinfect the water system. If you attempt to do it yourself you could make changes or cause damage that could actually encourage this bacterium to form.  A trained professional will know exactly what they can and can’t do and more importantly, they’ll be able to test the water to make sure what they have done has made a positive difference, rather than a negative one.