A cooling tower at a newly built housing development at 1325 Jerome Ave., where the Zeta Bronx Mt. Eden early childhood charter school is located, was found as a source of the west Bronx Legionnaires’ outbreak. But the school was never notified of the contamination, its CEO says.
City health officials announced on Friday that a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak that began in early May, infecting 30 people, 28 of which were hospitalized, has concluded because no one in the area has reported symptoms beginning in the last four weeks. Two people have died from the disease, according to the city health department.
The health department described the outbreak as located in the Highbridge area of the Bronx, or the 10452 and 10456 ZIP codes, which extend to parts of nearby neighborhoods Morrissana and Mt. Eden.
The department investigated three cooling towers that had live Legionella bacteria in them, and samples from the Jerome Avenue tower matched the strain found in two patients — in this outbreak, people caught the virus by breathing in water vapor emanating from the tower outside, according to city health officials. While health department spokesperson Patrick Gallahue said the building’s tower was the one that provided a match with patient specimens, the department has yet to respond to inquiries from the Bronx Times elaborating on what this means for the other cooling towers in question.
According to property records, the 15-story Jerome Avenue building, which just opened in July 2021, is owned by a subsidiary of the Doe Fund, a nonprofit and affordable housing developer with a mission to break cycles of poverty, homelessness and recidivism. The 255 apartment units are occupied by either low-income households or people who utilize on-site employment or substance use prevention services.
While Doe Fund spokesperson Elizabeth Lion told the Bronx Times that the fund hasn’t identified any residents who have been infected by the airborne disease, they aren’t the only people who have been regularly walking by the contaminated cooling tower.
Zeta Bronx Mt. Eden, one of the three Zeta charter schools in the Bronx, is housed in the same Jerome Avenue building. The location is focused on early childhood education, teaching pre-K, kindergarten and first-grade students at the site.
But Lion told the Bronx Times that Bolivar Development and Builders — development and construction firms that were involved in the construction of the building — own the commercial section of the building where the school is located.
And the charter school’s CEO claims the early childhood school had not heard about the cooling tower that emanated the harmful water vapor into the air outside the school or about the outbreak until the Bronx Times reached out for comment.
“It is outrageous that the first we are hearing of this outbreak is from the news media and we are deeply concerned this was not brought to our attention at the time,” Emily Kim, founder and CEO of Zeta Charter Schools said in a statement to the Bronx Times.
City health department spokesperson Michael Lanza emphasized that since the source of the outbreak was not contained to the single building, as the water vapor could impact anyone walking outside, the department notified the community of the outbreak by reaching out to elected officials, community board members and residents.
The Bronx Times has reached out to Councilmember Althea Stevens, whose district includes the cooling tower site, and Community Board 4, and is awaiting a response from both.
But Zeta’s CEO pointed a finger at her landlord for not informing the institution of what was going on.
“We are demanding more information from the developer-landlord and holding him accountable for any remediation that is required,” Kim said. “If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we must respond quickly and with transparency to any public health crisis — keeping communities in the dark is unacceptable.”
Lion told the Bronx Times that the Doe Fund notified Bolivar, which functions as the school’s landlord, of the situation, saying it is on them to notify the commercial tenant.
She said the fund does not know what Boliver communicated to the school.
The Bronx Times reached out to Jared Simon, vice president of Bolivar, for comment and is awaiting a response.
Lanza said the health department is working with the Doe Fund’s building management team on their long-term management plans for cooling tower operations, including more frequent water monitoring and sampling.
The department ordered the nonprofit to immediately disinfect the tower on May 23 and perform additional remediation on June 3. The site was sampled at the beginning of the health department’s investigation on May 20.
Lion told the Bronx Times that the fund, which owns the cooling tower, followed all cooling tower maintenance laws.
“The Doe Fund followed all instructions laid out by the Department of Health and has since fixed the problem,” Lion said.
West Bronx residents are no longer at an increased risk of Legionnaires’ disease, Lanza confirmed.
The Bronx Times is awaiting answers from the health department regarding whether any Zeta students or faculty were among the 30 infected in the Legionnaires’ outbreak, as well as whether the department determined what led to the bacteria growing in the Jerome Avenue tower, and whether the Doe Fund or other cooling tower owners involved in the investigation will face consequences.
Verizon recently came to an agreement with the state Attorney General’s office for allegedly violating cooling tower maintenance laws meant to prevent the spread of Legionnaires’ disease, a type of pneumonia, which were written following a 2015 outbreak in the Bronx.
Reach Aliya Schneider at firstname.lastname@example.org or (718) 260-4597. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes