Effects of climate changes and road exposure on the rapidly rising legionellosis incidence rates in the United States

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Legionellosis is an infection acquired through inhalation of aerosols that are contaminated with environmental bacteria Legionella spp. The bacteria require warm temperature for proliferation in bodies of water and moist soil. The legionellosis incidence in the United States has been rising rapidly in the past two decades without a clear explanation. In the meantime, the US has recorded consecutive years of above-norm temperature since 1997 and precipitation surplus since 2008. The present study analyzed the legionellosis incidence in the US during the 20-year period of 1999 to 2018 and correlated with concurrent temperature, precipitation, solar ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation, and vehicle mileage data. The age-adjusted legionellosis incidence rates rose exponentially from 0.40/100,000 in 1999 (with 1108 cases) to 2.69/ 100,000 in 2018 (with 9933 cases) at a calculated annual increase of 110%. In regression analyses, the rise correlated with an increase in vehicle miles driven and with temperature and precipitation levels that have been above the 1901-2000 mean since 1997 and 2008, respectively, suggesting more road exposure to traffic-generated aerosols and promotive effects of anomalous climate. Remarkably, the regressions with cumulative anomalies of temperature and precipitation were robust (R2 ≥ 0.9145, P ≤ 4.7E-11), implying possible changes to microbial ecology in the terrestrial and aquatic environments. An interactive synergy between annual precipitation and vehicle miles was also found in multiple regressions. Meanwhile, the bactericidal UVB radiation has been decreasing, which also contributed to the rising incidence in an inverse correlation. The 2018 legionellosis incidence peak corresponded to cumulative effects of the climate anomalies, vast vehicle miles (3,240 billion miles, 15904 km per capita), record high precipitation (880.1 mm), near record low UVB radiation (7488 kJ/m2), and continued above-norm temperature (11.96ºC). These effects were examined and demonstrated in California, Florida, New Jersey, Ohio, and Wisconsin, states that represent diverse incidence rates and climates. The incidence and above-norm temperature both rose most in cold Wisconsin. These results suggest that warming temperature and precipitation surplus have likely elevated the density of Legionella bacteria in the environment, and together with road exposure explain the rapidly rising incidence of legionellosis in the United States. These trends are expected to continue, warranting further research and efforts to prevent infection.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0250364
JournalPloS one
Issue number4 April 2021
StatePublished - Apr 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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