Drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline said Tuesday it has shut down its manufacturing site in Zebulon after the legionella bacteria was discovered in a cooling tower during routine testing.
The legionella bacteria is the cause of Legionnaires’ disease, a potentially fatal form of pneumonia. The bacteria is typically found in water systems.
New York has experienced 12 deaths this summer in its most recent outbreak, the largest in the city’s history.
GSK’s Zebulon plant, which employs about 850 people, makes Advair and Breo Ellipta, among other medications.
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The cooling tower is a standalone structure which does not come into contact with any products manufactured at the facility, according to a news release emailed Tuesday evening by GSK Director of U.S. External Communications Jenni Brewer Ligday.
Ligday said workers were sent home and later shifts were told not to report for work. The incident affected 600 employees.
“All staff who work in the main site have been asked to leave the building,” GSK said in a statement. “Second and third shift employees are being notified not to report to work until further notification while the situation is remedied.”
The company will clean the cooling tower and retest it for the presence of legionella bacteria, Ligday said. The bacteria grows in warm water and is typically found in cooling towers, hot tubs, hot water tanks, large plumbing systems and decorative fountains, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is not involved at this time because there are no reports of infections, said agency spokeswoman Alexandra Lefebvre. Wake County Public Health and Wake Environmental Health Services planned to monitor the situation and ask for assistance from the state if needed, according to Wake spokesperson Eric Curry.
Town of Zebulon officials and local emergency responders were not immediately notified of the situation.
Zebulon Mayor Bob Matheny said it was his understanding that the level of bacteria discovered was not high enough to generate a public health notice.
“As a precautionary measure, Raleigh is testing our drinking water and our reclaim water because they (GSK) use our reclaimed water for the cooling towers,” Matheny said. “Obviously if it’s reclaim water, it would have nothing to do with our drinking water.”
According to the CDC, people catch Legionnaires’ disease by inhaling mist or vapor containing the bacteria. The bacteria does not spread from one person to another person.
“Most people exposed to the bacteria do not become ill,” the CDC says on its web site. “A person diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease in the workplace is not a threat to others who share office space or other areas with him or her.”