Families of Legionnaires’ victims hit out at delays

Some of the sites named as possible sources of the Legionnaires' outbreak. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Some of the sites named as possible sources of the Legionnaires' outbreak. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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SOLICITORS representing the families of Legionnaires’ disease victims have hired their own expert in a bid to determine a definite source of the outbreak which killed four people in ­Edinburgh in 2012.

A specialist in the field of Legionella, water-borne contamination prevention and emergency response, has been commissioned by law firm Thompsons to take a fresh look at the spread of the infection with a brief to identify a single source.

The move comes after an NHS Lothian report named nine sites as potential sources for the deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease – but was unable to identify a definite site, instead stating that it was likely to have come from an industrial complex with wet cooling towers in the southwest of the city.

Macfarlan Smith, Burton’s Biscuits, Aegon, North British Distillery, Tynecastle Stadium, Murrayfield Ice Rink, the National Museum of Scotland, Trainwash and Selex were all named in the NHS Lothian report as possible source sites.

In the wake of the outbreak MacFarlan Smith was visited by scientists nine times with a total of 49 samples taken, while North British Distillery was visited four times with 15 samples collected.

The Crown Office has said that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute any person or organisation for the deaths, however law firms representing victims and their families, Thompsons Solicitors and Irwin Mitchell, have initiated civil proceedings against MacFarlan Smith and North British Distillery.

Patrick McGuire, a partner with Thompsons, has said that three years after the incident victims are “still no nearer to gaining the answers they need”.

He said: “It appears that the relevant authorities have attempted to wash their hands of this. We have now hired an expert with vast experience in this field to review the entire case with a view to determining a single source.

“More than three years have now passed, and it is a sad indictment of the system that it has gone on this long.”

Both law firms have also voiced their frustrations with regard to accessing relevant information and reports into the outbreak from the public bodies involved – namely the Crown Office, Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and NHS Scotland.

A spokesman for Irwin Mitchell said: “We have been deflected each time – being told that information cannot be released because of ongoing investigations or potential to prejudice other inquiries.”

The HSE has confirmed that it has completed its investigations into the outbreak and submitted nine final reports to the Crown Office in July 2014. The Crown Office has confirmed that a decision on whether to hold a Fatal Accident Inquiry is yet to be made, while prosecution of a number of companies in relation to breaches of HSE regulations unrelated to the deaths of the four people has been initiated.

A total of 56 confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ and 36 probable and possible cases were linked to the incident. The confirmed cases included Bert Air, Sean Ferguson, John Lonnie and Sylvia Riddell, who died after contracting the disease.

Legionnaires’ disease had a “considerable impact” on NHS Lothian’s services during June 2012, with more than 1,000 patients investigated and treated. The NHS report into the outbreak reveals that samples taken from Macfarlan Smith, Burton’s Biscuits and North British Distillery were found to have had traces of Legionella but “standard microbiological investigations” linking samples to the human cases proved inconclusive.

Meanwhile, levels of disinfectant below that required by HSE guidance on the control of the disease were also found at Macfarlan Smith, Burton’s Biscuits, North British Distillery and Aegon.

However, there is no evidence of wrongdoing by any of the individual firms named in the final NHS report into the outbreak.