Brain-Eating Amoeba: "You've Been Drinking It Forever"

Aug 25, 2015

Naegleria fowleri
Credit Centers for Disease Control

It’s called the “brain-eating” amoeba, and Naegleria fowleri has been found in three Louisiana water systems this summer.

“Where we’ve found most of the amoeba so far, in our testing, has been surface water,” State Public Health Officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry told the Baton Rouge Press Club Monday. He says the systems that have tested positive – St. Bernard Parish, Ascension District 1, and Schriever in Terrebonne Parish -- are boosting chlorine to kill the single-celled organisms and clean the pipes that carry water to homes and businesses.

He also tried to dispel some of the fear and misconceptions about the organism.

“Drinking’s not a problem. You’ve been drinking it. You’ve been drinking it forever,” Dr. Guidry said. “The problem is, don’t get it up your nose, now.”

Guidry gestured to the bridge of his nose.

“I’m talking about way up here where it burns. You know it’s up there when it gets up there. That’s not easy to do.”

Dr. Guidry says all the affected systems utilize surface water -- rivers, and catch basins – as their fresh water sources. Many others – like Baton Rouge -- draw their water from wells sunk into subterranean rivers known as aquifers. They don’t appear to be at risk of harboring the amoeba: at least, not yet.

“We use water in Louisiana like it’s never going to go away,” Guidry said. “And what we’re seeing is saltwater encroachment. So when you draw down, and the water level in that aquifer goes significantly down, then it starts pulling water from where? Brackish water. Saltwater.”

He says those heavy drawdowns of aquifers could change what now appears to be natural protection from Naegleria fowleri.

“So there is a risk when you use too much of it, and that’s why it has to be managed wisely.”

Asked whether the time has come for Louisiana to establish a comprehensive water policy, Dr. Guidry laughed uncomfortably, saying, “Now you’re putting me on the spot.”

Carefully saying he was speaking only for himself and not for the state Department of Health and Hospitals, Guidry said he feels the state would be wise to consider such a policy, especially considering industries that have depleted aquifers in a number of locations.

“We should not ever compromise what we have here for the sake of business or jobs. We really have to pay attention that we don’t end up one day where we don’t have good drinking water, good aquifers.”