Can I catch Legionnaires disease from my car?

If you put water in here it could kill you (photo by schwartz.mark - CC-BY)

It was noticed in 2006 that professional drivers were five times as likely to catch Legionnaire’s disease as anyone else, and the UK’s Health Protection Agency set out to find out why.

They surveyed the habits of survivors of the disease, and of a control group without the disease. It turned out that those who caught the disease were more likely to have been a driver or a passenger in a vehicle that used water as the windscreen (windshield) washer fluid.

There were also more cases of the disease in those who drove through industrial areas—perhaps because they washed their windscreens more—and those who drove with their windows open, who probably inhaled more of the spray. The HPA estimates that this accounts for 22% of community-acquired cases of the disease in people under age 70.

Legionnaires’ Disease is a rare but dangerous form of pneumonia, and ten percent of the people who catch it will die as a result. The disease is caused by the Legionella bacteria, and a separate investigation by the UK’s Environmental Protection Agency found the bacteria growing in the windscreen washer fluid reservior of one in five cars. The warm, stagnant water provides a favorable environment for growth of the bacteria, which are then sprayed in a fine mist towards the driver and passengers.

Significantly, the bacteria was not found in washer fluid reservoirs that contained screen wash fluid instead of plain water.

So, to avoid catching Legionnaires’ Disease from your car, simply use screen wash fluid at the recommended concentration in your windshield washer tank, instead of using plain water.

I have been using plain water for my car’s windscreen washer to save money, but I’ll be using screen wash fluid from now.

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