LAKE JACKSON, Texas (KXAN) — It’s not going to be a quick fix to remove the brain-eating amoeba from Lake Jackson’s water supply.
“The path forward for the citizens of Lake Jackson is not going to be short,” Texas Commission on Environmental Quality executive director Toby Baker said in a Tuesday press conference. “We’re going to do everything possible to get the citizens of Lake Jackson in a state where they can trust the water they’re drinking and their system.”
The amoeba, scientific name Naeglera fowleri, can be found in just about every natural body of water in Texas, officials said.
What makes this unique is that this is the first time, at least to Baker’s knowledge, the amoeba has made its way into a Texas public water system.
Officials believe the amoeba was present in the water at a splash pad in Lake Jackson, and that’s where they think 6-year-old Josiah McIntyre contracted it and eventually died from it Sept. 8.
Baker said the process includes the citywide boil water notice, which could take 2-3 weeks to get through, plus an additional 60 days in order to pump enough chlorine through the entire water system to kill the amoeba.
“We as leaders in the state of Texas, must seize upon the strategy to make sure this never happens again. And that’s why we’re here today,” Gov. Abbott said, “We are using every tool possible to quickly fix whatever is wrong, to restore certainty in the community.”
In the meantime, residents are preparing for the boil water notice to last a while.
“Because of the situation we’re in this year, it’s just one more thing. And you think, ‘What else is going to happen,’ and ‘What else can go wrong?'” Cheryl Fowler said she felt terrible for McIntyre’s family when she heard the news over the weekend.
She and her husband are now adjusting their day-to-day lives, but say it’s not too big of a deal.
“I have to say the hardest thing is trying to brush your teeth without running water,” Fowler said, adding that they’re figuring it out.
Chief Nim Kidd with the Texas Division of Emergency Management said that the state has distributed over 6,500 cases of water to the Lake Jackson population.
Fowler said luckily, most people along the coast are already well-stocked with water bottles.
“Because we’re on the coast and are used to having hurricane warnings, we already, or should have anyway, have bottled water in stock somewhere in the house,” Fowler explained.
“The CDC is going to be part of that process with us, and they’ve committed to testing on the back side to make sure that we’ve taken care of the problem,” Baker continued.
He also said there has to be “cross-connection” surveys done to see if any unfiltered water is seeping into or otherwise entering the city’s water system.
Baker said the TCEQ has been in Lake Jackson since Saturday, and they tested not just the Lake Jackson water system, but other water systems in the area south of Houston. He said there isn’t a dedicated test for the amoeba, but rather a test to see the disinfectant levels in the water.
He said of 53 sites tested in the Lake Jackson water system, 11 came back with levels below what they should be. All other area water supplies that were tested came back with disinfectant levels either at or above the required level, Baker said.
“One of the things we’re going to get to the bottom of is the residual samples we have in our record show nothing of concern up to this point in the city,” Baker said. “We will definitely be investigating that further.”
Baker said public water systems are tested constantly for bacteria and disinfectant levels, and they are required to run tests at least 30 times a month. Modesto Mundo, the Lake Jackson city manager, said he was made aware of a potential issue Sept. 25, and he said they shut down the suspected splash pad McIntyre played in “immediately.”
He said tests done on Sept. 10 came back fine, but when secondary tests were done by the CDC on Sept. 22, that’s when results known three days later showed potential there was a problem in the city’s water system, Mundo said.
“That started the chain reaction of notifying everyone,” Mundo said.
Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said it’s extremely rare to contract the amoeba, which what makes the death of McIntyre that much more tragic. He said it won’t hurt anyone if they drink water with the amoeba present, but rather the water has to go up someone nose, which allows the amoeba to make its way up the sinus cavity and eventually into the person’s brain.
“There is no other way to get the infection,” he said. “You have to get it deep up your sinuses, which makes it all the more rare. This is a terrible tragedy.”
Dr. Hellerstedt said the chance of this happening again in Lake Jackson is essentially zero.
“You can’t never say zero, but really, it’s zero,” he said. “There’s just not going to be a chance the water is going to contain this amoeba after they finish the kinds of remediation efforts.”