New Brunswick’s Department of Health has been taken to task for failing to disclose information about the legionnaires‘ outbreak in Moncton last year.
The department had blacked out a list of locations that were tested during the outbreak in the summer of 2019, in response to a right to information request filed by CBC New Brunswick.
The health department said revealing the details could cause potential financial harm to the locations tested.
But in an 11-page report issued last week, Charles Murray, the New Brunswick ombud, says the Department of Health incorrectly applied the province’s right to information law.
The report found that any potential harm that would be suffered if the testing sites were disclosed was “speculative at best.”
“The department’s primary concern was about revealing the identified source of the outbreak,” Murray writes, noting that the issue he was examining was only the location of sites and whether the source of the outbreak would be identified.
Documents would reveal source of legionnaires’ outbreak
The New Brunswick government declared an outbreak of legionnaires’ in Moncton in August 2019.
It ended more than a month later after 16 people became ill from the pneumonia-like disease, 15 of whom were hospitalized.
Legionnaires’ is caused by bacteria called legionella that can be found in both natural bodies of water, such as ponds, lakes and streams, and in constructed water systems, such as air conditioners, cooling towers, whirlpools, spas and decorative fountains.
In cooling towers, the bacteria can be dispersed into the air and then carried by the wind for kilometres.
The province’s health officials confirmed that they were able to conduct tests that confirmed the strain of bacteria found in the affected patients was linked to contaminated water at a single site. But they repeatedly refused to disclose where it was.
At the time they said there was “no benefit” to identifying the location as it had already taken actions to address the bacteria and clean the system.
Although documents disclosed through another right to information request redact every mention of the company at the centre of the outbreak, they do indicate New Brunswick health officials were repeatedly in contact with an unnamed company and the source of the outbreak.
The documents show a number of calls between public health and the company, all of which coincided with testing.
Initial results detected levels of legionella that exceeded both Quebec and federal guidelines and, according to an email from Dr. Yves Léger, the regional medical officer of health, “would require immediate shutdown and cleaning/disinfection.”
The company was also repeatedly updated with how much information would be shared with the public.
“Our position is still that we will not publicly provide the name of the company or (its) location,” Léger wrote in an email dated Aug. 22.
‘Little evidence’ that revealing locations would cause financial harm
In the decision released last week, New Brunswick’s ombudsman took the province’s health department to task for using a section of the province’s right to information law that allows the government to withhold data or information that could harm a third party’s business or financial interest.
Murray noted that the redacted column “consists of civic addresses and/or the name of the owner of the location(s) tested.”
If revealed, the data would effectively confirm which company operated the location where elevated levels of legionella were detected.
The province argued that revealing the location could result in the public having a “negative impression that would impact commercial operations, resulting in significant financial losses,” according to the report.
But Murray says “little evidence” was presented by the province or the third parties who objected to the disclosure of the information to persuade him that the information was commercial, financial, scientific or technical information.
“I found the concerns raised about the disclosure of the test site locations were speculative at best,” Murray wrote.
Murray also rejected an argument advanced by the province that revealing the locations could result in reduced co-operation in future public health investigations.
He noted that it is illegal under the province’s Public Health Act for individuals and organizations to hinder a public health investigation or a public health inspector.
Murray doesn’t have the power to order the release of the information and the province can ignore the ruling if chooses to.
The province has 20 days to make its decision. The department of health said it is still reviewing the ombud’s decision.