Patient deaths at Brigham and Women's Hospital attributed to defective water purification system

By Natalie Kruvant | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published March 8, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • A new study confirms that a faulty water purification system led to three patients' deaths at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

  • The patient infections occurred in 2017 and 2018.

  • The faulty system allowed dangerous bacteria to grow in the water and ice machines.

A study released Monday found that three patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston died after bacterial growth in the ice and water machines lead to dangerous bacterial infections. 

The infections occurred in four cardiac surgery patients. The study noted that the only commonality that patients had while at the hospital was their room location. They were all located on the same floor. The infections occurred in from 2017 to 2018.

Mycobacterium abscessus can cause a range of different infections. Common manifestations, though, include pneumonia, wound infections including surgical site infections, and bloodstream infections. It is treated with antibiotics,” Michael Klompas, MD, MPH and author of the study told MDLinx.

The water purification system, which would later be discovered as the culprit for the infections, was installed to improve the taste of the hospital water. However, it accidentally depleted the chlorine levels in the water, which allowed the bacteria to grow.[]

Mycobacterium abscessus is known to have a predilection for water. Other healthcare systems have reported clusters associated with aqueous systems including contamination of heater-cooler devices for cardiac bypass, medications, disinfectants, humidifiers, ice and water machines, and plumbing systems,” says Klompas.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that Mycobacterium abscessus is somewhat related to the same bacteria that causes tuberculosis and leprosy. According to the CDC, this mycobacteria is not usually transmitted via people but instead is found in water, dust and soil.[] 

The infections stopped once patients were given sterile and distilled water and ice. The water purification system was discontinued as well.

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