More than twelve and a half thousand people living in St. John the Baptist parish were recently living at risk of a brain-eating amoeba that was detected in their water system in late August.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the potentially deadly amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, is commonly found in warm freshwater. It is only harmful if the water enters a person’s body through the nose, where the amoeba then travels to the brain, causing a devastating, fatal infection, called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM).
Though health officials insist that the water is safe to drink, residents are still concerned with how the amoeba ended up in the water in the first place.
On Tuesday, two Utilities Department inspectors surrendered themselves for arrest, accused of falsifying data related to the water that the amoeba was detected in.
Kevin Branch, 54, of LaPlace and Danielle Roussel, 43, of Paulina, were the inspectors assigned to gathering water samples daily at the Lions treatment plant in Reserve and in Mount Airy. Their job was making sure the water met the state required minimum of 0.5 milligrams of chlorine per liter of water. If chlorine levels get too low, the water becomes at risk for the potentially fatal amoeba.
“All vulnerabilities exposed during this event are being addressed through organizational, structural and personnel changes,” said Parish President Natalie Robottom. “The circumstances are very serious, and they are being handled in that manner.”
Some of these organizational, structural and personnel changes will include a state-mandated “chlorine burn” and hiring outside consultants to supervise water sampling, Robottom said. Also, employees will undergo additional training, though Robottom suggests that lack of training was not a factor in this particular case.
“Initial concern was about training, but I think the investigation suggested some other possible reasons for the problem,” Robottom said.
The “chlorine burn” has been in effect for the past eight weeks, and health officials say that levels seem to be back to normal. They continue to insist that the water is safe for drinking, cooking and bathing.
“I feel as if the situation was handled in the right way after the news was broken of the amoeba,” said Fred Cook, an affected homeowner from Garyville. “But it’s still an extremely scary situation. I found out first from a Facebook link that said St. John Parish water has a brain-eating amoeba. I mean, how are people supposed to respond to that? It’s horrifying. I’m just glad that everything was sorted out before there were any fatalities.”
Naegleria fowleri is the same amoeba that was found in St. Bernard and DeSoto Parish last year, which led to two deaths.
“It makes me nervous that the chlorine level got lower than 0.5,” said Holly Juneau, a resident of St. John Parish. “How do we know there won’t be another incident? That, to me, is a horrific thought, that our kids could die from the water.”
Branch and Roussel’s indictments said that the GPS on their company vehicles showed they were not at the sampling sites on several of the dates and times indicated on their testing logs, which were sent to the state Department of Health and Hospitals for further review. This indicates the two were filing false records without actually testing the waters, assuming that the chlorine levels would be normal.
“It’s just a shame that people don’t take their jobs seriously,” Juneau said. “They may not think their job is important. They may think it’s okay to cut corners, but they are responsible for people’s lives, and it’s not okay at all. I’d hope that these state workers would have enough pride in their jobs to do things correctly in the future. And I hope that [Branch and Roussel] get the consequences they deserve.”
Dr. Jimmy Guidry, the state medical director, told St. John Parish residents at a town meeting that Naegleria fowleri amoeba is found is most lakes and streams, and that people have been exposed to it without their knowing for years.
In fact, Louisiana is the only state that tests for this particular amoeba, because of the deaths associated with it in recent years.
“If you ask any other state if they have Naegleria in their drinking water, they wouldn’t be able to answer because they don’t test for it,” Guidry said at the meeting. “It’s not something routinely tested for.”