City declares state of disaster after brain-eating amoeba in water supply killed child

Andy Gregory
·3-min read
Lake Jackson's water supply has been contaminated with naegleria fowleri (Getty Images)
Lake Jackson's water supply has been contaminated with naegleria fowleri (Getty Images)

A Texas city has issued a disaster declaration and warned residents not to use tap water after a brain-eating amoeba was found to have infected the water supply.

Authorities in Lake Jackson were alerted to the problem on 8 September, when a six-year-old boy died after ingesting naegleria fowleri, either from the hose at his home, or at an outdoor play area.

Test samples from both sites and from a city centre fire hydrant, sent to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), showed the presence of the encephalitis-inducing organism.

“The City of Lake Jackson, County of Brazoria, Texas, is facing significant threats to life, health and property due to contaminated drinking water,” the city’s mayor said in its emergency request to state governor Greg Abbott.

“I have determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that an effective response is beyond the capability of the city to control,” Bob Sipple added.

He asked for the state to issue directives allowing for the establishment of curfews, and control over people’s movements and the sale and use of alcohol, weapons and explosives, among other powers.

Officials warned residents in eight locations surrounding the city not to use tap water for any reason except to flush toilets on Friday, but lifted the warning for everywhere but Lake Jackson on Saturday.

Late on Saturday night, Texan environmental authorities updated the guidance for Lake Jackson residents again, informing them that they could use tap water once again for cooking and washing, but must boil it beforehand.

The amoeba has a 97 per cent fatality rate when ingested via the nose, however it cannot survive in stomach acid, therefore posing no risk if swallowed, according to the CDC.

In the updated notice issued by city officials, residents were warned to avoid the multiple ways in which the contaminated tap water could fatally enter their nose, such as: “DO NOT allow water to go up your nose or sniff water into your nose when bathing, showering, washing your face, or swimming.”

Residents were also told not to allow children to “play unsupervised with hoses and sprinklers”.

If ingested, symptoms include fever, nausea, vomiting, headaches and a stiff neck. Most people die within a week.

City officials sought to assure residents that its water system has historically been in compliance with all state and federal requirements, citing the CDC as saying it was an “anomaly” for there to be both naegerlia fowleri and high levels of chlorine in a water system.

Attempting to head off concerns about “a bunch of chemicals [being] dumped into the water system”, they cited CDC guidance as saying that “the water utility may raise disinfectant levels and flush the system to get rid of Naegleria … the water may have a strong chemical taste or smell, but your water utility will be working to make sure it still meets drinking water standards”.

As the city’s 27,500 residents grappled with the news of their potentially fatal water supply, a memorial was held for six-year old Josiah McIntyre.

"He was an active little boy," ABC reported his mother, Maria Castillo, as saying. “He was a really good big brother. He just loved and cared about a lot of people.”

“I'm angry and upset and sad and heartbroken,” Ms Castillo added. “It really means a lot to me because we want to know as a family for peace of mind. I know it doesn't bring him back. The fact that we know how he got it, how he contracted it, gives us peace of mind.”

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