Experts: Flush pipes in buildings that have been vacant

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana building owners should flush out water pipes before reopening to the public because harmful bacteria and other material may be present, experts say.

The Indiana State Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Management have both issued guidance on properly flushing water systems as retail businesses reopen following closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, The Indianapolis Star reported.

Properties could be hosting bacteria such as Legionella, or lead or copper, which are poisonous to humans. Copper and lead have been associated with slowed growth in children, cardiovascular effects, among other health issues.

“Utilities need to be moving water through their system, and building owners need to be moving water through their systems,” Andrew Whelton, an associate professor of civil, environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University, said. “If they maintain some consistent use, if they have been flushing, then it’s probably not a problem. But if they haven’t been flushing and the water’s basically sat stagnant there, what they need to do is contact the health department and they will probably be told to flush.”

Flushing water lines involves opening up taps for an extended period. But different agencies have provided conflicting directions, confusing property owners about the process. Whelton said this will probably cause disease outbreaks. He added that Purdue University engineering has a web page that includes information on building water safety that might be useful.

Drinking water is never sterile, said Caitlin Proctor, a Lillian Gilbreth Postdoctoral Fellow at Purdue. Usually, water from faucets and drinking fountains contain bacteria. But it also contains disinfectant residue and corrosion control from when it was treated at a plant, which Proctor said degrades over time, causing bacteria to grow.

Proctor also noted that some pathogens can be inhaled if they become airborne. She recommends leaving the area to flush. The state Department of Environmental Management suggests wearing protective respiratory equipment.

Proctor added that it’s hard to know the condition of the water because there is little insight on what happens when water has been stagnant for a long time.