Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference an hour south of Houston in Lake Jackson Tuesday afternoon to give an update on the ongoing effort to purge a killer amoeba from that city's water supply. Area residents will be asked to keep boiling their tap water before using it for at least the next two weeks, and the city's entire water system will need to be flushed which could take 60 days.
City officials were first alerted that the Lake Jackson water system might be dangerously tainted after a six-year-old boy who lived in the city, Josiah McIntyre, died on September 8 due to an infection caused by the brain-eating amoeba, days after he played in a city fountain.
“Our hearts go out to the young Texan who lost his life and his family, and I ask my fellow Texans to join me in keeping him and his family in our hearts and prayers,” Abbott said. “Residents should continue to heed the orders of local officials as we continue to monitor the situation and work to eradicate this deadly amoeba from the water supply.”
McIntyre’s family said he had played in a splash pad at the fountain outside the Lake Jackson Civic Center in late August, just days before he became seriously ill. The splash pad was shut down on September 8 after Brazoria County health officials notified the city that McIntyre died due to an amoeba infection.
This deadly amoeba, called Naegleria fowleri, is usually found in warm freshwater, and can prove fatal if it manages to get into a person’s nose and then works its way up into the brain, which is extremely rare according to the CDC.
Lake Jackson is still under a boil water notice, and could be for at least the next two to three weeks, said Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Commissioner Bobby Janecka. TCEQ water tests on Saturday found 11 spots in Lake Jackson with lower than recommended levels of chlorine, which is put into state water supplies as a disinfectant to keep the water safe from contaminants, Janecka said.
“The disinfectant level in the system is an indicator as to whether there’s an issue…If the levels are high enough, there shouldn’t be any issues,” said Janecka.
To fix the low disinfectant levels, the city of Lake Jackson has now started the process of dumping its entire water supply and will then flush the system with water with high levels of chlorine as recommended by the CDC, which could take up to 60 days to complete, Janecka said.
After Brazoria County water officials were notified Friday night that CDC water tests in Lake Jackson found evidence of the amoeba, a do-not-use order was issued for all the cities served by the Brazosport Water Authority. By Saturday, the TCEQ had told all nearby cities except for Lake Jackson that their water supplies were safe, and Lake Jackson was put under a boil water notice.
On Sunday, Abbott issued a disaster declaration for Brazoria County to mobilize resources to help Lake Jackson fix its water supply. So far, the Texas Division of Emergency Management has distributed over 6,500 cases of water to Lake Jackson residents.
Janecka said that previous required monthly disinfectant and bacteria tests sent to the TCEQ by Lake Jackson showed “nothing of concern” and he didn’t offer any explanation of just how exactly the deadly amoeba got into the city’s water.
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“At this point it’s too early to speculate as to what caused it,” Janecka said, but he did say that the TCEQ and CDC will be working with outside investigators to determine if there’s “anywhere in the city where unfiltered water might be getting into the system.”
Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt stressed that it’s impossible to get infected by this particular amoeba “from drinking the water or merely showering with it.” As to the percent chance that any other Lake Jackson residents might get infected from their tap water while the city’s supply is being treated, he claimed it would be virtually impossible.
“The risk is vanishingly small...You can never say zero, but really, it’s zero,” Hellerstedt said.
“All information points to this being isolated,” Abbott said.