Less than a week after St. Bernard Parish officials called a public meeting to try to ease concerns after the August death of a 4-year-old boy who likely contracted a rare brain-eating amoeba on a Slip ‘N’ Slide at a mobile home near Violet, state public health officials held a public hearing Monday night to answer questions about steps being taken to flush out the local water supply.
Parish officials say it could take weeks to flush enough chlorine through the water supply to minimize the threat of the Naegleria fowleri amoeba. The organisms also turned up in a hose attached to an outdoor faucet and in a toilet tank inside the mobile home, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals said earlier this month.
Since Naegleria fowleri cannot be contracted by drinking water, public health officials say the local water supply remains safe to drink.
At Monday’s hearing, called by state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, state health experts fielded questions from the public.
At Thursday’s event, members of St. Bernard’s Water and Sewer Committee posed questions to Parish President David Peralta about the water supply but did not take questions from the public.
Peralta denied that the parish’s water supply had worsened over the past year, but he couldn’t say whether it faces a greater risk of contamination than water in neighboring municipalities.
Recent state tests showed water in several areas in the parish — including near where the 4-year-old boy became infected — had low chlorine levels, which have plagued St. Bernard for years. The parish tests the water at 32 locations each month.
The August death marked the third Naegleria fowleri-related death in Louisiana since 2011, officials said. Only 128 people have reportedly contracted the disease in the United States since 1962, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost all of them have died.
On Monday, Arabi resident Crystal Wells blamed parish officials for not picking up on warning signs after a St. Bernard man died of the fatal brain infection in 2011 after using contaminated tap water in a neti pot to irrigate his sinuses. “My area of town has had low chlorine levels consistently at least for the last eight months, and I’m guessing maybe even longer,” Wells said. “Wasn’t that a red flag?”
Jake Causey, chief engineer for the state Department of Health and Hospitals, said federal regulations only require a “detectable amount of chlorine throughout the water system,” and that the water in Wells’ area was not out of compliance.
“Because there is a detectable amount with those values, that would be in compliance,” Causey said. “Our concern is to be looking for areas where there’s no detectable amount of chlorine. We did find areas like that, but they were not part of the routine monitoring sites.”
State and federal drinking water regulations do not specifically address monitoring or treatment for amoebas, but health experts say that increased chlorine is likely to control the amoeba.
But Wells wasn’t satisfied. “I just see a pattern, and it’s pretty obvious that there’s been a problem for a while,” she said, as St. Bernard administrators listened stone-faced.
Now, as part of their response, parish officials plan to collect 50 water samples each month, rotating among 75 locations, Causey said, adding that “we have a really excellent idea of where those sites and areas need to be.”
“We’re going to review that plan to make sure that it is representative of every drop of water that everybody in here drinks,” he said.
St. Bernard officials plan to conduct more water testing after the chlorine flush is finished, a process expected to take several more weeks.
In three months, the parish will flush the water supply again for about 60 days, Causey said, followed by another round of amoeba testing.
John Williams, a regional engineer for DHH, said state and parish officials have started seeing results as they’ve flushed the the water with 500 pounds of chlorine per day.
“It’s going to take some time for it to move through the system. This is a big system, but we have been monitoring it and we are seeing the results of this,” Williams said.
Though public health specialists highlight the difficulty of determining the cause of contamination by the amoeba, several experts say low levels of chlorine could be a factor, because water treated with chlorine is unlikely to test positive for the single-celled organisms.
During last Thursday’s questioning, some parish officials, including Councilman Manuel “Monty” Montelongo, expressed skepticism about whether the visiting 4-year-old had contracted the deadly disease in the parish. “So the circumstances surrounding this horrible death, I don’t think anybody can tell us for sure that the amoeba came directly from our system?” Montelongo asked at the time.
DHH Secretary Kathy Kliebert seemed to put that talk to rest Monday. “The CDC confirmed the amoeba is present in the water system,” Kliebert said. She noted that “a second round of more intensive tests performed by the CDC reconfirmed the original positive results.”
Causey has speculated that the parish’s sharp population drop in the years since Hurricane Katrina could be a factor, since fewer residents are using the water, which means it’s not moving as actively through the system. Public health experts have said the parish’s reduced water usage could be an explanation for the low chlorine levels.