Parents, schools react to St. John water scare

Published 11:45 pm Friday, August 29, 2014

By Monique Roth

LAPLACE — Reserve resident and mother Sharon Sellars Cassagne said her three children will bathe in LaPlace at her mom’s house for the next 60 nights after the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals announced the presence of the Naegleria fowleri ameba in the St. John Water District 1 system Wednesday.

“As a lifelong resident of St. John Parish, I never imagined that worrying about a brain-eating bacteria being found in our water would be a possibility,” Cassagne said. “My husband and I have been living in Reserve for over seven years now and have always used our water with the trust that our parish officials were taking all necessary precautions to make sure their citizens were safe. Now having three small children, two of which are twins under the age of 1, this scare is far more concerning than I would have ever dreamt of.”

Cassagne said her babies get water up their nose nearly every time they bathe between splashing, pouring water over their heads and the occasional slip.

“Naegleria fowleri usually infects people when contaminated water enters the body through the nose,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website states. “Once the ameba enters the nose, it travels to the brain where it causes (primary amebic meningoencephalitis), which is usually fatal.”

Reserve resident and mother Brooke Trepagnier is also concerned with the water report. She said after doing research online about the organism contaminating the water in her home, she decided to head to her father’s house in St. James Parish to bathe her four children.

“Anyone who has bathed a child under the age of 5 knows that asking or even expecting that they not get water in or near their noses is easier said than done,” Trepagnier said. “The effects of this organism on a person, much less a young child, are devastating to say the least.” 

Water taken in a sample two weeks ago from St. John the Baptist Parish Water District 1 tested positive for Naegleria fowleri ameba, Parish President Natalie Robottom confirmed at a press conference Thursday morning.

She said the announcement was made public Wednesday afternoon, an hour after parish officials received the information in a conference call with the Department of Health and Hospitals and the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

Robottom said the sample was required to sit for 10 days before sampling took place. She said residents were notified as soon as possible.

“The concern is when water goes deep into your nasal passage,” Robottom said of the ameba.

She said any potential threats associated with the ameba could occur only when the water enters deep enough into the nasal passage to cause a burning sensation.

According to the CDC, Naegleria fowler is commonly referred to as the “brain-eating ameba.”

The CDC said symptoms start one to seven days after nasal exposure to the ameba. Signs and symptoms of the infection include severe frontal headache, fever, nausea and vomiting in stage one and stiff neck, seizures, altered mental status and hallucinations in stage two.

The impacted water system serves 12,577 people in Reserve, Garyville, Mt. Airy and a small portion of LaPlace on West 5th from Acorn Street to Apricot Street.

Agencies around the parish are working to ensure people in their care and under their watch are aware of the report and taking every precaution possible.

St. John Parish Housing Authority Executive Director Trina Henderson said all public housing residents are being provided with a copy of the parish’s news release, complete with contact information for the parish’s Emergency Operations Center. She said she will make sure residents are informed of any parish updates.

While schools remain in session in the affected area, Superintendent Kevin George said the school district is taking every precaution possible to ensure complete staff and student safety.

He said teachers are monitoring younger students in the bathroom to make sure they don’t splash any water into their faces and wet wipes are being used in many classrooms to substitute frequent hand washing.

District Communication Specialist Jennifer Boquet said school officials taped up school water fountains so they are inaccessible to students, and the affected schools are providing bottled water to the students.

The water system was tested as part of DHH’s surveillance program that launched this month. During the ameba testing, DHH discovered the system was not in compliance with the state’s emergency rule, which requires water systems maintain a minimum disinfectant residual level of 0.5 milligrams per liter throughout all of their distribution lines. This 0.5 mg/L level is known to control the Naegleria fowleri ameba.

 DHH issued an emergency order requiring St. John Water District 1 to perform a free-chlorine burn (maintain 1.0 mg/l of free chlorine throughout the system for 60 days) to kill the amebae within the water system. Robottom said the process started at 7 a.m. Thursday.

At the end of 60 days, DHH will sample the system again for the presence of the ameba. In previous cases in Louisiana, this action has been effective in controlling the ameba, officials said.

Once St. John Water District 1 begins the chlorine burn, Robottom said residents served by this water system may notice a change in the smell and taste of the water throughout the chlorine burn. However, the water will remain safe to drink.

“We are working closely with the water system and parish officials to ensure that the chlorine levels are increased to a level that will reduce the risk of exposure to the ameba,” DHH Public Health Assistant Secretary J.T. Lane said. “Water from St. John Water District 1 remains safe to drink; however, we do have guidance for residents on steps they can take to reduce their risk.”

Louisiana State Health Officer Jimmy Guidry said families can take simple steps to protect themselves from exposure to this ameba, the most important being to avoid allowing water to go up your nose while bathing or swimming in a pool.

“It is important to remember that the water is safe to drink; the ameba cannot infect an individual through the stomach,” he said.

The St. Charles Parish Department of Waterworks said it has fielded questions from members of the public regarding its water system in light of the detection in St. John Parish. Officials said there is no reason to believe St. Charles Parish’s water system is at risk for the ameba.

“The parish’s system is currently in compliance with all state and federal drinking water regulations, including the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospital’s emergency rule for Naegleria fowleri,” St. Charles Parish Public Information Officer Renee Allemand Simpson said of the water system that serves residents in Ama, Bayou Gauche, Boutte, Des Allemands, Destrehan, Hahnville, Killona, Luling, Montz, New Sarpy, Norco, Paradis, St. Rose and Taft.