In the 10 months prior to the Legionnaires' disease outbreak that has infected five people and killed at least one of them at the Pittsburgh Veterans Administration hospital in Oakland, two companies told the VA that it was not properly maintaining its water treatment system.
This week, one of those companies, Liquitech of Lombard, Ill., said it first told the Pittsburgh VA in December 2011 that the copper-silver ionization system it used at the University Drive hospital in Oakland was not being properly maintained to kill the legionella bacteria present in water systems.
That warning was made after the company made a "courtesy visit," said company spokeswoman Kathleen Cantillon.
Liquitech "knew there were problems because they did a basic inspection of the system and saw that the calibration was off," she said.
The company repeated that warning again after another visit this past April, and followed up with a proposal in May to the VA to help it maintain the system, "but they never heard back from the VA," Ms. Cantillon said.
The Post-Gazette previously reported that another company -- Pittsburgh-based Enrich Products Inc. -- was called in by the VA in June to do its own review of the system. It found problems with the system as Liquitech did and made a recommendation to the VA a month later to help it improve maintenance.
Enrich didn't hear back from VA until October -- at about the time the hospital realized it might have an outbreak -- when the VA asked the company to help it adjust the system to get the wildly fluctuating copper-silver levels in the water system back to optimal levels.
Keith Hill, who is the national vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 800 workers in the three Pittsburgh VA facilities, said knowing that two companies warned the Pittsburgh VA "is a travesty."
"If they knew about the problems and were told about it by two -- not just one -- companies and they didn't do anything about it, someone should lose their job," said Mr. Hill, who claimed in a press release Wednesday that the VA was involved in a "cover-up" over the outbreak.
Pittsburgh VA spokesman David Cowgill said he had no comment about Mr. Hill's allegation, or the information from Liquitech about their recommendations.
Copper-silver ionization systems use electrodes attached to small amounts of copper and silver that, when charged, release minute amounts of the heavy metals into the water system. It is the combination of both the copper and silver in the water that has been proven to prevent the spread of Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease.
Liquitech is making its past recommendation to the VA public now because it believes the VA has unfairly -- and unlawfully -- attacked the copper-silver system, which it sold to the University Drive hospital in 1993, as well as new systems in building expansions in 2009 and 2011.
"These systems work effectively when they are properly maintained," Steve Schira, Liquitech's owner, said.
When the Pittsburgh VA first announced the outbreak on Nov. 16, Mr. Cowgill said in a press release: "Our existing copper-silver ionization system ... may not be as effective as previously thought, as is the case in other health systems using this method. Consequently, we are shifting to a chlorination system to ensure better control."
That statement angered Mr. Schira, who said since its release his company has fielded several calls from clients and an insurance underwriter asking Liquitech to explain why copper-silver systems should still be used or recommended.
In response, Mr. Schira on Dec. 4 sent Mr. Cowgill an email requesting that he "cease and desist of your continued false statements, as well as demanding a public retraction of these false and misleading statements."
"If the Oakland VA refuses to withdraw their numerous public accusations, Liquitech intends to seek legal counsel to determine what action can be taken against these blatant misrepresentations as well as to conduct an evaluation into any damages sustained by our business as a result of the publication of this false information," Mr. Schira wrote.
Mr. Cowgill said Wednesday he had no comment about the cease and desist request.
Sean D. Hamill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579