St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta on Thursday downplayed new concerns about a rare brain-eating amoeba that was recently detected in the parish’s water system, blaming the positive test on broken sampling equipment that likely distorted the results.
The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals informed parish officials late Wednesday that the Naegleria fowleri amoeba was found last month at a sampling station at 948 Angela St. in Arabi, nearly two years after a young Mississippi boy died from contracting the deadly single-celled organism at a home in Violet.
The state tested the water on June 24 as part of a new program implemented in the wake of the 2013 incident. In light of the test results, Peralta said, the parish will raise chlorine levels in the water system for 60 days — a formula that officials say has been successful at eliminating the amoeba elsewhere.
State officials said that when they sampled the water at seven St. Bernard sites in June, two tested positive for the amoeba. One positive test was taken at the parish’s water treatment plant before the water was treated. The second positive test was taken at the home on Angela Street.
Peralta said the Angela Street testing equipment— which is about twice as big as a shoebox and located on the ground — was broken, probably the victim of a passing car or a lawn mower. Whatever happened caused a crack in the pipe where water flows to be tested, which caused standing water to accumulate nearby. That was likely where the amoeba was soaked up, he said.
“That’s where we suspect the amoeba came in,” Peralta said. “They opened the spigot and took the sample, and some of the water infiltrated the testing station but not the water line.”
Chlorine levels at the site of the positive sample met the state’s required level of disinfectant, which Peralta said supports his theory of what happened. He said the equipment was repaired immediately.
DHH spokeswoman Olivia Watkins Hwang said state officials are investigating the cracked line as a potential factor in the positive test. “It’s really too early to make that determination,” she said.
Hwang said additional water testing is slated for Friday, after which it will take about three weeks to get results. “We want to make sure that we’re thorough and we don’t jump to any conclusions,” she said.
Both Hwang and Peralta said the positive result on untreated water from the parish water plant is typical and not a cause for alarm.
Five other sites tested negative for the amoeba, though one site did not meet the required level of disinfectant.
As a precaution, Peralta said, the parish has been flushing fire hydrants on Angela Street. He asked residents to leave the hydrants alone.
“I know this upsets people, but there’s a reason we’re doing this: to ensure public health and safety, and we can’t have people shutting these things off,” he said.
In late 2013, state health officials issued an emergency rule that required most water systems in the state to maintain a higher level of disinfectant, the first change in required chlorine levels in nearly two decades. Since then, the amoeba also has been found in treated water in St. John the Baptist Parish as well as in DeSoto Parish in northwest Louisiana.
New regulations require a minimum disinfectant level of 0.5 milligram of chlorine per liter of water throughout any parish water system — an amount believed to be effective in controlling the amoeba.
Earlier regulations had required water systems to have merely “trace” or “detectable” levels of chlorine.
A person can contract the amoeba only if it enters the body through the nose and is pushed into the brain. A 14-year-old boy died this month after contracting the rare infection while swimming in a lake in Minnesota.
The boy who died in St. Bernard Parish in 2013, Drake Smith Jr., apparently contracted the Naegleria fowleri amoeba on a Slip’N Slide at a mobile home.
The amoeba turned up at four sites in the parish’s water supply later in 2013 — including at the Violet home — which prompted the parish to begin flushing its water lines with additional chlorine, a process that lasted for months.
By early 2014, state health officials said samplings from nearly a dozen sites in St. Bernard had turned up no signs of the amoeba, which has killed at least three people in Louisiana since 2011.
Only 133 cases of the infection have been reported over the past 53 years, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and only three people are known to have survived.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.