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Research Article

Legionnaires’ disease in dental offices: Quantifying aerosol risks to dental workers and patients

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Pages 378-393
Published online: 02 Aug 2021


Legionella pneumophila is an opportunistic bacterial respiratory pathogen that is one of the leading causes of drinking water outbreaks in the United States. Dental offices pose a potential risk for inhalation or aspiration of L. pneumophila due to the high surface area to volume ratio of dental unit water lines—a feature that is conducive to biofilm growth. This is coupled with the use of high-pressure water devices (e.g., ultrasonic scalers) that produce fine aerosols within the breathing zone. Prior research confirms that L. pneumophila occurs in dental unit water lines, but the associated human health risks have not been assessed. We aimed to: (1) synthesize the evidence for transmission and management of Legionnaires’ disease in dental offices; (2) create a quantitative modeling framework for predicting associated L. pneumophila infection risk; and (3) highlight influential parameters and research gaps requiring further study. We reviewed outbreaks, management guidance, and exposure studies and used these data to parameterize a quantitative microbial risk assessment (QMRA) model for L. pneumophila in dental applications. Probabilities of infection for dental hygienists and patients were assessed on a per-exposure and annual basis. We also assessed the impact of varying ventilation rates and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). Following an instrument purge (i.e., flush) and with a ventilation rate of 1.2 air changes per hour, the median per-exposure probability of infection for dental hygienists and patients exceeded a 1-in-10,000 infection risk benchmark. Per-exposure risks for workers during a purge and annual risks for workers wearing N95 masks did not exceed the benchmark. Increasing air change rates in the treatment room from 1.2 to 10 would achieve an ∼85% risk reduction, while utilization of N95 respirators would reduce risks by ∼95%. The concentration of L. pneumophila in dental unit water lines was a dominant parameter in the model and driver of risk. Future risk assessment efforts and refinement of microbiological control protocols would benefit from expanded occurrence datasets for L. pneumophila in dental applications.


We would like to extend our deepest thanks to three BASIS Scottsdale faculty members who provided significant assistance in mentoring student Aditya Kuppravalli—Dr. Jeannette Toghyani, Ms. Rachael Whitney, and Mr. Paul McClernon—who shared their advice and guidance throughout the project. We graciously acknowledge Dr. Philip Mollica, DMD, for his input in scoping the risk model and providing information about dental equipment.

Additional information


Support for this program was provided by the BASIS Scottsdale internship program for high school students.

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