DONALDSONVILLE — An Ascension Parish water system where a brain-eating amoeba was found last month has not maintained a high enough level of chlorine aimed at ensuring the deadly organism is eliminated, Louisiana’s state health officer said Tuesday.
Dr. Jimmy Guidry, the health officer with the state Department of Health and Hospitals, said water in the Ascension Consolidated Utility District No. 1 has not sustained the chlorine level of 1 part per million required for a “chlorine burn.”
Parish officials claimed last week that the burn had already reached the 1 ppm level and that the amoeba had been killed off.
“Well, that’s what they were reporting,” Guidry said. “We came out and tested, and we’re not in agreement there.”
The finding means it will take longer for the process of the chlorine burn to finish, though state and parish officials say the water remains safe to drink.
Guidry said the mandated 60-day period for the chlorine burn won’t start until the water district maintains a chlorine level of 1 ppm.
Ken Dawson, the parish chief administrative officer, acknowledged the state’s finding and blamed it on a chlorine injection pump that had been incorrectly turned off shortly before the state conducted its test.
Dawson provided data showing water testing sites had been at or above the standard before the pump mishap and, more recently after DHH’s testing, had returned to that required level or higher.
The state ordered the parish to conduct a 60-day chlorine burn after the amoeba was discovered July 28.
Water containing the Naegleria fowleri amoeba does pose a risk to people if water gets up someone’s nose and has access to a person’s brain. Since 2011, three deaths in Louisiana have been attributed to the amoeba, prompting DHH to order the state’s water systems to raise their chlorination levels to 0.5 ppm by February 2014. Previously, only trace amounts of chlorine were required.
Under the chlorine burn, the parish has to double the state level and maintain it for 60 days.
Mixing four drops of ink in a 55-gallon barrel of water would create a 1 ppm mixture of ink, an online fact sheet from the West Virginia University National Environmental Services Center says.
The parish water system, which has miles of line but few customers, has had trouble maintaining the new state chlorination level. The system buys its water from Assumption and St. James parishes.
The water system serves the outskirts of Donaldsonville only, including the rural communities of Modeste and Lemanville as well as the Ascension Parish Prison. The amoeba was found on the Assumption-supplied side of the system near the end of the water pipeline in Modeste.
Dawson’s and Guidry’s comments came Tuesday evening before and after a community meeting called by state Sen. Troy Brown, D-Geismar, over the amoeba.
A few dozen residents, parish and state officials were on hand as Guidry and a DHH consulting expert talked about the amoeba and steps to address its discovery in the state.
Guidry explained that in boosting the chlorine levels, the parish, on the one hand, must strive for an increase in chlorine levels but, on the other, not let levels get too high or the high chlorine content could create byproducts that pose a long-term cancer risk. Guidry said the 1 ppm standard has been determined safe.
Leonard Julien, 73, of Modeste, asked if increased chlorine levels could harm beneficial bacteria in a person’s digestive system. He said he knew of three people who had cases of severe vomiting shortly after the burn started.
Chad Seidel, the DHH consultant and vice president of Corona Environmental Consulting, said the chlorine levels do not affect people’s digestive systems.
But he explained that the parish’s boosted chlorine effort has come with a switch in the chemical method of chlorine delivery. That change is noticeable, he said.
“It does not mean there is a health impact associated with it. It’s just an aesthetic change,” Seidel said.
Lois Cayette, 74, who lives in Modeste near the end of the water line, withheld her judgment on the state and parish responses.
“We’ll see,” she said after the meeting.