What Mayor Bird Brain Doesn’t Know About Legionnaires’ Disease

-By Gary Krasner

On August 4, 2015, The New York Times reported that, “Since the outbreak that gave Legionnaires’ disease its name nearly four decades ago, water-cooling towers have been identified as prime breeding grounds for the deadly disease.” It reported that “Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York advised the public to be on the lookout for symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease and to immediately seek treatment if symptoms start to appear.”

Old guys like me may remember the connection to water-cooling towers for air conditioners with this disease. But few of us know that the disease is not caused by any pathogen floating in the water, but rather what is leaking from the AC units which that water is used to cool.

Legionnaires’ Disease was a good illustration how illnesses from chemical toxins are erroneously attributed to infectious microbiological agents. To allege that fabricating an infectious disease epidemic is possible opens the door halfway into accepting these ‘heresies’ in theory, with respect to other phony influenza outbreaks, such as West Niles, H1N1, Swine, Avian and Spanish flus. To actually believe that the fraud occurs routinely opens the door completely.

My first inclination to believe this occurred before I had any knowledge about the fallacious contentions of infectious and communicable diseases generally. In 1979, I read a three-page article that started to change my perspective. The protagonist in “What Dr. Runsdorf Knows (And the Government Doesn’t) About Legionnaires’ Disease” (Phil Patton, New York magazine, January 29, 1979, p.30) was a Brooklyn surgeon whose independent investigation into the outbreaks of pneumonia revealed that they were not infections from a bacterium, as the CDC concluded, but rather a chemical toxin.

The first incident occurred in August 1976, when the disease struck an American Legion convention at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, eventually killing 29 of the 180 people in which Legionella pneumophilia was later detected. I recall the news reports at the time, and had no reason to question the experts.

But Dr. Harold Runsdorf, a 70-year-old physician and inventor, was perhaps in the best position to realize that the CDC was wrong when it proclaimed Legionella pneumophilia, “a previously unknown bacterium”, as the cause of Legionnaires’ Disease (LD). When he was an engineering student, he developed a turbine engine that ran on the fluorocarbon, Freon. But he learned in engineering school the problem with fluorocarbons as a fuel: At temperatures above 500 degrees Fahrenheit they “pyrolyze”, or break down, into dangerous gases.

For two years prior to the publication of Phil Patton’s article about him, Runsdorf had been pursuing the theory that Legionnaires’ Disease was actually caused by the pyrolyzed products of refrigerants leaking from air conditioners. The predominant byproduct is phosgene gas, which had been the most common poison gases used in World War I. He eventually learned that cases of poisoning occurred only where there was air conditioning and some heat source hot enough to convert the refrigerant to phosgene. When the cause of the disease still eluded public health officials, the air-conditioning maintenance crew in his hospital felt that phosgene gas could have been carried through the ventilation ducts.

Exposure to the gas may provoke slight irritation, or no symptoms at all until several hours or even several days later. The symptoms include headache, nausea, and a tightness in the throat and chest. These symptoms may progress to chills, shock, delirium, a dry cough, and high fever (102-105 deg.), as fluid builds up in the lungs. These symptoms–including kidney failure that may develop 72 hours later–mimic pneumonia. Indeed, the delayed expression of symptoms following exposure made it easy for the microbiologists at CDC to believe they were dealing with a biological pathogen. The lack of contagion didn’t dissuade them.

A piece of evidence that favored the phosgene gas theory was the finding of particles of nickel in the lungs of some of the dead Legionnaires. Runsdorf realized that the highly corrosive hydrogen fluoride from decomposed refrigerant had reacted with the CDC’s stainless-steel containers holding the tissue samples, yielding the large quantities of nickel, whose presence the CDC couldn’t account for any other way. Prior to this finding, Runsdorf was alert to this possibility and had warned against the use of stainless steel instruments and containers.

Patton wrote that neither the CDC nor public health officials knew about phosgene, nor were they interested in Runsdorf’s ideas. Leonard Bachman, Philadelphia’s secretary of health who was heading the investigation of the Bellevue Stratford Hotel outbreak was not interested. Runsdorf brought his case to medical officials in that city–Marvin Aronson and Lewis Polk–and the district attorney’s office, and the NY Daily News, and the NY Times, and ABC News, and Philadelphia magazine, and CBS News. Only the last two did stories on his hypothesis. Runsdorf testified in hearings in Philadelphia in November 1976, held by the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee. Ironically, the only affirmative response came from the manufacturer of the refrigerant used at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel. Refrigerant “F-11” was a trademark of DuPont, which threatened Rusdorf with legal action.

But mainly, Runsdorf tried to sell his theory to the CDC, which ultimately took over the investigation. He also begged them to test for fluorine. The CDC replied that no assay was performed because “the relatively high background levels of tissue fluorine resulting from fluoridation of water would have made interpretation of the findings extremely difficult.” But the concentrations in water was very low–1 part per million–and would have been lower still in tissue samples. Patton wrote that quantitative tests for fluorine could have been significant.

Dr. John Marr, director of the Bureau of Preventable Diseases, considered Runsdorf’s theory. According to Patton, Marr felt that while the theory was hard to prove, it was also “very hard to disprove.” It was hard to prove because cooling devices using Freon included air conditioners in buildings and cars, refrigerators, and heating pumps. Runsdorf had to demonstrate that there occurred some scenario of Freon leakage from such devices, and that a conversion to phosgene had taken place.

For the first case at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel, there appears to have been a Freon leak. The hotel manager testified before the House panel that the air-conditioning system was leaking F-11, the most easily pyrolyzed of all refrigerants. Experts thought the leak was coming from the compressor in the basement. After the leak was repaired, service technicians reported that large quantities of F-11 had to replace what had been lost from the leakage.

Burning cigarettes or the brushes of the compressor motors could have converted the Freon to phosgene. But Congressional testimony established the incinerator in the basement operated from 7am until 5pm. Congressional investigators thought that the incinerator may have been working overtime, due to the garbage strike that summer. Both the compressor and the incinerator–glowing white hot–were located in the same 60 by 40-foot room in that hotel basement. The CDC investigators failed to note these facts.

Congressional investigators also confirmed there was an exhaust fan in that basement which would have drew any gas escaping from the compressor over the hot incinerator, and into ducts ventilating the ballroom where the Legionnaires met. Patton wrote that “it was also linked to an exhaust pipe Bellevue Alley, behind the hotel, where a large number of those suffering from the so-called Broad Street pneumonia, a less severe form of LD, remembered walking.” To Runsdorf, the varying intensities of the illness supported a chemical rather than a bacterial agent. (i.e. that it was dose-dependent.)

Runsdorf suggested that the conditions in the hotel basement could have been duplicated for purposes of testing. He also sought to test tissue samples taken from the lungs of dead Legionnaires for concentrations of fluorine. That request was repeatedly denied by the CDC. However, eventually he was able to surreptitiously obtain the lung specimens, through a Philadelphia health official. He sent those samples to the NYC medical examiner’s office for chemical testing. The tissue preserved by freezing confirmed high levels of fluorine compared to controls. But fluorine had leached out of the sample that was preserved in formalin. Runsdorf requested the formalin that was used in preserving the other samples. The CDC promised to furnish it, but never had.

Patton delineated close to a dozen other outbreaks in various cities that Runsdorf studied, ranging from 1965 to 1978. On that last one–August, 1978–two years after his investigations had begun, two fatal cases of LD had been confirmed, and 17 suspected cases were observed on Seventh Avenue in the garment district of New York City. LD bacterium was found in the cooling tower at Macy’s department store.

(Note: The CDC report on it failed to explain why there were only those 17 confirmed cases, even though its own sampling found that a quarter of the entire population of Manhattan showed positive blood tests for the LD bacterium. Regardless of Runsdorf’s theory, that alone should have demolished the CDC’s bacteria theory.)

Patton describes how Runsdorf, on September 1, 1978, used his GE Type H-10 halogen detector–which lights up in the presence of fluorocarbons–to pinpoint the actual location and likely cause of the Macy’s outbreak. The heavier-than air Freon likely fell from the roof or upper stories of the tall New York Telephone Company headquarters, onto the roof of a shorter building at 249 West 35th Street. On the street level in front of that address, his halogen detector flashed red, indicating the presence of fluorocarbons. This was the area in which one man died and his two brothers became ill with LD, while unloading garments from trucks and moving them into the Interstate Dress Carriers warehouse. Other cases in the same area included a shipping clerk and an elevator operator for Interstate, and a policeman who walked the beat on that block.

Runsdorf believed that the heat source that pyrolyzed the refrigerant were the engine manifolds of the delivery trucks idling along 35th Street. He was unable to confirm the leak, because the telephone company would not allow him access to their air-conditioning system. However, Patton found sources within the company who reported an unusually high number of telephone operators–as many as 3 dozen–became ill during the period of the outbreak. Perhaps some of the gas had penetrated the building through windows, vents, or doors.

The CDC’s final tally was 3 fatalities and 57 cases, including suspects. The CDC and the city’s health and buildings inspectors would not check the area for air-conditioning leaks. Patton noted that this was due mainly to their bias in favor of a bacterium. He wrote that the CDC never gave serious consideration to the phosgene gas theory, even though it cropped up in the press several times. He explained that “the reason lies in the heart of the whole biological–and bacteriological–bias built into the disease-control agency, a bias all the more inappropriate as more and more toxic agents turn up in our environment.” I’ve seen abundant evidence of this bias ever since I read Patton’s words.

Patton ended his article with a quote from Runsdorf: “I’m 70 years old. I just want to prove this damn thing and die.” I spoke to Runsdorf once, not long before he passed away around the mid 80s. He was far from a germ theory “denialist.” He was able to gain allies for his phosgene theory, such as the American Society of Sanitary Engineers. And his questions persist after his passing, such as, “Why doesn’t the CDC test for fluorocarbons”; “Why are air conditioning systems always involved?”; etc.

Personally, I wonder how many cases of phosgene poisoning have since become diagnosed as the disease in fashion at the time? For example, given the similarities in symptoms, such cases might be diagnosed today as West Nile infections, for example. Or whatever is endemic at the time.

Warning: you’re about to read heresy to the conventional theory of infectious disease: People exposed to chemical toxins can become ill, and in the process, their own bodies will generate abnormal strains of microbes to deal with the crisis. Researchers tend to select the microbe that most correlates to those who are ill, and attribute that as the cause of the illness, rather than a harmless serological marker resulting as a consequence of the environmental toxin.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to get into this subject. Just suffice to say that the ability to isolate novel strains of bacteria or viral fragments in sick people exposed to the same environmental factors does not mean that those microbes had caused the illness. Whether the suspect microbe devolved endogenically from normal cells within the host from exposure to those toxins, or was an exogenic viral or bacterial transmission, mere presence doesn’t prove causation. At best, as I say, their detection may be just serological markers for exposure. Exposure to what, and whether or not it caused the disease, requires further proofs.

Such proofs are never undertaken, as Dr. Runsdorf discovered, because there’s no glory for a medical researcher to identify an ordinary chemical toxin. You might even get industry mad at you. But isolating a new microbial pathogen gets you published and research grants, and patents for culturing the microbe and finding a vaccine for it. The economic incentives determines the cause of most illness.

This is the distinction that many don’t understand at first when introduced to Natural Hygiene: Pathogenic microbes are transmissible from person to person. But the diseases they’re alleged to produce are not. Pidoux expressed the theories of microbiologists Antoine Bechamp and Jules Tissot (who came later) most succinctly when he wrote: “Diseases are born of us and in us.”

Yet open any bacteriology textbook assigned to medical students today, and the cause of Legionnaires’ Disease is ascribed to the bacterium, Legionella pneumophilia. Mayor Bird Brain didn’t do that, because he has a whole department of bird brains advising him.

Copyright Publius Forum 2001