Elevated levels of Legionella bacteria were recently detected in water fixtures during routine testing at the Social Security Administration’s headquarters building in Woodlawn, Maryland, officials said.

A spokesperson for Social Security said in a statement to Federal Times on Tuesday that after a broad sweep of water fixtures, some came back with elevated levels, which is not unusual given testing experts have told the General Services Administration that roughly half of the water samples they take come back positive.

Upon retesting, only “a small subset” of water sources in the main campus building indicated elevated levels, according to the official. Impacted fixtures have been removed, and the spokesman said employees have been notified. Officials also said they’ve flushed the system, which helps disrupt any film that have developed over water sources and stops the growth of any naturally present Legionella.

Legionella is a naturally occuring bacteria that is found in both freshwater and in plumbing, and it poses little risk when present in low numbers. It’s when the bacteria grows and is inhaled, or much less commonly drunk, that it can cause health issues, including a potentially fatal pneumonia-like sickness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say most healthy people exposed to Legionella don’t fall ill. Still, Legionnaires’ disease, caused by the similarly named bacteria, is the most commonly reported waterborne illness in the U.S., affecting between 52,000 and 70,000 people each year.

“According to the CDC, Legionnaires’ disease and Pontiac fever — which is related [to Legionella] — remain rare, but the number of cases reported has grown over the past 20 years,” according to a blog post from GSA. “This year we are testing for Legionella, as well as things like heavy metals, across many buildings.”

Last year, GSA sent out a memo to agencies urging swift action to prevent Legionella contamination in federally owned and operating offices after it became aware of six buildings in across the country that tested positive for the bacteria. GSA said at the time that less densely populated offices post-pandemic may be contributing to water stagnation, which allows the bacteria to thrive.

Two months after those reports, GSA issued an order in November 2023 establishing national requirements and industry standards for testing the presence of Legionella, when none had existed before. This initiative likely means more positive results will be recorded simply because more tests are being conducted.

On June 13, a similar discovery was made in the water sources of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services building near Baltimore. The same bacteria, Legionella, was found when testing new plumbing fixtures, and the building was closed, according to The Washington Post.

Last summer, the Rosa Parks Federal Building in Detroit was also closed after testing exposed Legionella in the building’s cooling towers and drinking water. That building houses employees from several agencies, including the IRS and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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