Ascension Parish officials on Wednesday morning were in the process of tapping a water line to inject additional chlorine to kill a brain-eating amoeba found a day earlier in one of the parish’s water districts.
“Our goal is to have it completed at the end of the day or, at the latest, tomorrow morning” with additional chlorine going into the system, said Ken Dawson, chief administrative officer of Ascension Parish Government.
Residents can drink the water but should not let water go into the nose, the pathway the amoeba can take to the brain, state health officials have said.
The discovery of the Naegleria fowleri amoeba was made by state Department of Health and Hospitals officials Tuesday afternoon.
The amoeba was in one of four samples taken in Ascension Consolidated Utility District 1. The three other samples showed no trace of the amoeba.
Parish President Tommy Martinez said the parish has been asking DHH “for at least 2 1/2 months to let us chlorinate that line, but because we’re not the people who produce the water,” DHH said no.
Water for that district is purchased from Assumption and St. James parishes.
“We certainly could have avoided this,” Martinez said of the discovery of the deadly amoeba. “We wanted to be proactive instead of reactive.”
State health officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry said he couldn’t find any request asking for a chlorine burn to be done on the side of the river near Donaldsonville where the amoeba was found. However, there is a pending request to do a chlorine burn on the other side of the river where the amoeba wasn’t found, he said.
DHH doesn’t require a permit to do a chlorine burn, but there is a notification process in which a water treatment facility needs to document when it plans to start, under what conditions, what chemicals it plans to use and that it will notify the public.
Guidry said the department actually encourages chlorine burns to clean pipes of material that can harbor things like the amoeba. People with private, individual wells are responsible for disinfecting their own wells, and those who don’t will run the risk of problems not only with the amoeba but with other contamination, as well, he said.
Martinez said the water in the district has previously tested well, but the parish has had problems with the system, with its being literally at the end of the line at that point, with not as much flow as elsewhere in the parish.
The discovery of the Naegleria fowleri amoeba was the second such finding in this part of the state in two weeks, with a discovery of the amoeba last week at a sampling station in Arabi, in St. Bernard Parish.
On Wednesday evening, DHH reconfirmed the positive test for the amoeba in the St. Bernard Parish Water System. Three follow-up samples collected from 948 Angela, 701 Lebeau and 318 Pontabol all tested positive, reinforcing the need for the 60-chlorine burn to clean out the system.
DHH said in a news release Tuesday that at the Ascension Parish location where a sample tested positively for the amoeba, at 9295 Brou Road east of Donaldsonville, where the water system dead-ends, the chlorine levels in the water were below the state requirement of 0.5 parts per million.
Dawson said Wednesday morning that a “quill,” a tube that will allow injection of additional sodium hypochlorite, the liquid form of chlorine, was being put into the main water line of the affected district.
The injection of additional chlorine, called a chlorine burn, will run for 60 days.
“The chlorine burn will take the residual (of chlorine) in the water up to 1.0 parts per million, and we will maintain it at that level for 60 days. It will be pumped in at a new level,” Dawson said.
Ascension’s Consolidated Utility District 1 is located in an area on the west side of the Mississippi River, west of Donaldsonville to the Iberville Parish line.
The district serves approximately 750 customers. The majority of those customers, 622, are served by the water purchased from Assumption Parish.
“The chlorine at our meter to that system is at 1.5 (parts per million) or higher; the state mandate is 0.5. It’s a higher quality” chlorine level, said B.J. Francis Jr., the general manager of Assumption Parish Water Works in Napoleonville.
“They purchase water from us, and at that point it becomes their responsibility,” Francis said of Ascension Parish.
“It’s hard to pinpoint” how the amoeba might have entered the water, Francis said.
There are many potential ways it can happen, he said.
The amoeba occurs naturally around the world in warm freshwater environments and soil. Drinking water with the amoeba doesn’t cause an infection, but if it gets high into the nose through swimming, showering or water sports, it can then travel through the nasal tissue and migrate to the brain up the olfactory nerves.
In the brain, the amoeba causes an infection that destroys brain tissue and is usually fatal, said Guidry, state health officer with DHH.
After infection, the amoeba can incubate in the body for seven to 10 days, in which time a person can start having headaches and stiff neck. The illness progresses very quickly with more advanced symptoms depending on what part of the brain the amoeba is attacking, with effects ranging from speech problems to losing one’s balance, he said.
“By day 12, the person is dead,” Guidry said.
There’s no known effective treatment, he said.
Three of the 133 people known to have been infected with the amoeba in the U.S. between 1962 and 2014 have survived, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“They still don’t know why they survived,” Guidry said.
The amoeba has never been shown to be transmitted from person to person or from things like shower mist or a humidifier, according to DHH.
Cases have been reported in the U.S. from California to Virginia and from Minnesota to Louisiana with more than half of all infections having occurred in Texas and Florida.
Still, it’s a relatively rare condition.
Although people visit swimming areas hundred of millions of times in a year, the U.S. sees between zero and eight infections a year, according to the CDC.
“Before we started looking for it, they’d probably been showering and swimming in it for years,” Guidry said. “It definitely is in our environment.”
Because there are so few cases every year, there’s no accurate information about the true risk of getting infected, according to DHH.
In Louisiana, the Naegleria fowleri amoeba has killed three people in Louisiana since 2011. Two of those deaths came in 2011 — one in St. Bernard Parish and one in DeSoto Parish. In each case, the amoeba got into the body through the nose through the use of a neti pot, a popular home remedy thought to help clear sinuses. The third death came in 2013 when a child playing on a slip-and-slide in St. Bernard Parish died after water infected with the amoeba got into the child’s nose.
Last year, DHH started testing water systems across the state for the amoeba, with the completion of 28 systems.
This year, the testing started in June and will continue through September since the amoeba thrives in warm water and recedes when water gets colder, said Amanda Laughlin, acting chief engineer with DHH.
So far this year, 17 water systems have been tested with two testing positive — in St. Bernard and Ascension parishes. An additional 24 water systems will be tested this year, which may sound like a small number compared with the total of 1,362 systems in the state, but the testing takes time.
DHH staff collects samples by slowly flowing a certain amount of water from the main water system pipe through a fine mesh filter, which can take up to an hour because of the large volume of water needed. That gets repeated at three to five locations along the main pipeline, Laughlin said.
Those filters are sent to a laboratory for analysis, and the multistep procedure can take two to four weeks to produce results.
The DHH program tests water systems with different treatment methods, different water sources and those that have had trouble keeping up the required 0.5 mg/liter level of chlorine or other disinfectant.
“Then we always go back and resample those that tested positive,” Laughlin said. “Once you have a positive (result), we would consider you a high risk system and we’d keep monitoring you.”
When testing shows the presence of the amoeba, water systems do a chlorine burn.
Ascension Parish has contracted with a consultant, TMB of Baton Rouge, to assist with the chlorine burn, Dawson said.
Through grant money, Ascension Parish has begun buying equipment to increase its ability to control chlorine levels for water it purchases, Dawson said.
For instance, it now has a flow meter that will be useful during the chlorine burn, he said.
“You have to base the chlorine (injection) based on the flow (of water) from the water supplier,” Dawson said.
A pump was to be delivered to the parish Wednesday that will hook up with the flow meter to start getting the additional chlorine into the water, he said.
“We’re going to do whatever we need to do,” Dawson said.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Michael LeBlanc, 58, a resident of the unincorporated community of Modeste, a rural area west of Donaldsonville that’s affected by the amoeba discovery, said that when he got the automated phone call about the finding, “I didn’t worry about it. What can I do?”
Standing on the back porch of his home on La. 405, across from the levee in a landscape dominated by sugar cane fields, LeBlanc said, “What I couldn’t understand is, it’s not dangerous (if it doesn’t get in the nose), but then it eats your brain.”
Not very reassuring, he said.
He’s made at least one change in his lifestyle since getting the warning, he said.
Instead of boiling water from the tap to brew coffee in the old-fashioned drip-pot he uses, he’s now boiling bottled water.
The parish is eyeing ways to both help expand parish water service regionally as well as improve the finances of the affected district, Ascension Consolidated Utilities District 1.
Martinez, the parish president, has recently proposed the parish purchase a private water company, Peoples Water Service Co., which is based in Maryland and run systems in Donaldsonville and elsewhere.
If the parish owned the company, it could set rates.
Ascension Consolidated Utilities District 1 was created in 2000 after years of Peoples Water’s refusal to extend service to the rural parts of the west bank.
Residents in the district pay a 10-mill property tax and user fees, but with fewer customers than projected, the parish has helped fund the district in various ways in the past and now supplements it every year from the general fund and a 1-cent sales tax, the parish’s primary source of undedicated revenue.
Martinez on Wednesday said the parish continues to be interested in buying People’s Water Co. In June, the Parish Council gave Martinez power to negotiate a purchase for up to $5 million.
On Tuesday, the Ascension Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness alerted affected residents by landline and by smartphones that were registered with the office with a recorded message of the situation, Director Rick Webre said.
The message included the toll-free number, (866) 380-2303, that callers can use to learn in detail how to handle the water.
DHH has issued these guidelines:
Do not allow water to go up your nose or sniff water in your nose when bathing, showering, washing your face or swimming in small, hard plastic pools and blow-up pools.
Do not jump into or put your head under bathing water or the water in small, hard plastic pools and blow-up pools; walk or lower yourself in.
Do not let children play unsupervised with hoses or sprinklers. Avoid recreational activities in which water may go up the nose.
Run bath and shower taps and hoses for five minutes before use to flush out the pipes. This is most important the first time you use the tap after the water utility raises the disinfectant level.
Keep small, hard plastic pools and blow-up pools clean by emptying, scrubbing and allowing them to dry after each use.
Use only boiled and cooled, distilled or sterile water for making sinus rinse solutions for neti pots or performing ritual ablutions.
Keep your swimming pool adequately disinfected before and during use. Pools should have free chlorine at 1 to 3 parts per million and pH of 7.2 to 7.8. Hot tubs and spas should have free chlorine at 2 to 4 parts per million or free bromine at 4 to 6 parts per million and pH of 7.2 to 7.8.
If you need to top off the water in your swimming pool with tap water, place the hose directly into the skimmer box and make sure the filter is running. Do not top off the pool by placing the hose in the body of the pool.
For more information, visit the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/parasites/naegleria/prevention.html.
Advocate staff writer David Mitchell contributed to this story.