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The Disease You Can Catch From Your Car


A form of bacteria responsible for respiratory illness can be found in the most unusual of places – in your car’s windshield washer fluid.

Researchers in Arizona have found that the bacteria responsible for Legionnaires’ disease may be able to grow in windshield washer fluid. This knowledge led to the discovery that our kids may be at risk. Nearly 75% of school buses tested within one district were found to have the bacteria.

Legionnaires’ disease is a form of pneumonia, lung inflammation usually caused by infection. The bacterium responsible is called legionella. Most people come in contact with legionella by inhaling the mist or vapor (it is not spread person to person). Older adults, smokers and people with weakened immune systems (including children) are particularly susceptible to Legionnaires' disease. Untreated, the disease can be fatal.

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Windshield washer fluid is not normally associated with spreading disease. Otto Schwake and colleagues began this project after a series of epidemiological studies found motor vehicle use to be associated with increased risk for Legionnaires' disease. One such study attributed nearly 20 percent of Legionnaires' disease cases in the United Kingdom not associated with hospitals or outbreaks to automobile windshield washer fluid.

"Washer fluid spray can release potentially dangerous numbers of these bacteria into the air. These results suggest that automobiles may serve as a source of transmission for Legionella infections," says Schwake, a doctoral student at Arizona State University.

Prevention from this potential source of bacteria includes keeping windows closed while spraying windshield washing fluid. You could also be sure to use a fluid that contains methanol, an alcohol used as a de-icer, which inhibits the growth of legionella. Remember to also keep kids away from the washer fluid found at the pumps at most gas stations.

American Society for Microbiology. "Windshield washer fluid a source of Legionnaires: Found in most school buses." 18 May 2014.