Texas weather: Fear of parasites in water supply revived after winter storm damage

Impact of extreme conditions on pipes and infrastructure prompts search spike for threat posed by brain-eating amoeba that caused tragic death of Lake Jackson boy in September

Joe Sommerlad
Friday 19 February 2021 13:12

Snow storms continue to wreak havoc in Texas and across US

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Texas governor Greg Abbott has warned the state is “not out of the woods” after a week of devastation caused by extreme winter storms, despite millions of homes finally having their power restored.

Electricity returned to some 2.68 million residences on Thursday but 325,000 are still in the dark and without heating in below-freezing temperatures as utility companies warn rolling blackouts remain a possibility due to the strain placed on local power grids.

Adding to the Lone Star State’s misery is the bitter weather compromising its drinking water systems by inflicting damage on key infrastructure and pipes, with authorities currently advising 7 million people to boil their tap water before drinking it.

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Houston mayor Sylvester Turner advised residents of the southern city, the fourth-largest in the US, to boil theirs until Sunday or Monday in the interests of safety.

“The water is not clean for us and so, we shouldn’t drink it, we shouldn’t cook with it, and we shouldn’t give it to ourselves to drink or even to our pets,” local physician Dr Christine Le told ABC 13. “We have to be very safe at this time.”

“It’s very dirty, lots of germs, there could be viruses in there, hepatitis, there could be bacteria. These are germs that could definitely get a person very ill, get their pets ill, send you to the hospital... during this trying time, that’s just not something that could be very helpful for any of us.”

The fear of contaminated water appeared to be behind a 1,250 per cent spike in Google searches for “Texas water parasite 2021” between Thursday and Friday.

The issue remains fresh in the minds of Texans after the city of Lake Jackson, south of Houston and inland from the Gulf of Mexico, suffered a tragedy on 8 September 2020 when six-year-old baseball fan Josiah McIntyre died five days after coming into contact with a single-celled amoeba, Naegleria fowleri.

The boy initially reported suffering headaches before his condition worsened and he began vomiting and became feverish.

After testing negative for Covid-19, influenza and strep throat at the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, neurological scans in intensive care revealed he was experiencing a swelling of the brain caused by the waterborne parasite, a condition known as primary amebic meningoencephalitis.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes the microscopic amoeba as a “rare and devastating infection” that is “usually fatal”, saying it lives in freshwater and soil and enters the human body through the nose.

Following McIntryre’s death, eight Texas cities were alerted to the threat posed by the parasite, all of which were quickly cleared, barring Lake Jackson.

After investigations were carried out at the city’s civic centre’s “splash pad” fountain and at the boy’s home, the Texas Department of Health Services finally found traces of the amoeba in three out of 11 samples at the fountain, prompting Governor Abbott to issue a disaster declaration for the surrounding Brazoria County on 27 September.

Toby Baker, executive director of Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ), said on 30 September, in response to McIntyre’s death, that his staff were “working 24 hours a day to try and remedy the problem that is going on with the drinking water situation”.

Mr Baker warned at the time that the process would “not be short”.

“We have to get through the boil water first, which could take two to three weeks, after that we have to get chlorine levels to a state that can burn the entire system, scour the system, and kill the amoebas,” he said.

“That could take up to an additional 60 days.”

Having begun a free chlorine disinfection process on 26 September, the TCEQ lifted its Boil Water Notice to Lake Jackson residents on 6 October, advising citizens their water is “safe to use for drinking and cooking” and that the system had been “extensively flushed throughout the distribution lines”.

The CDC carried out testing of the city’s public water system in the first week of December and gave it the all-clear on 11 December, saying all 15 of its samples had come back negative for Naegleria fowleri.

“The negative test results indicate increased chlorine levels in the water system have controlled the amoeba,” TCEQ wrote in a press statement in response.

There have been no further reports of infection in the area to date but, according to the CDC, it was previously found in Louisiana in 2013 and 2011 and in Arizona in 2003.

The Independent has contacted the commission for further comment in light of the revived concerns prompted by the extreme weather.

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