Energy & Environment

After The Death Of A 6-Year-Old Boy, Officials Work To Ensure Water Safety In Lake Jackson

Residents will have to wait a while until things return to normal, health officials said.

This undated photo provided by Maria Castillo shows Castillo, center, with her son Josiah McIntyre, left, and daughter Alayna Flores. A Houston-area official said Monday, Sept. 28, 2020, it will take 60 days to ensure a city drinking water system is purged of a deadly, microscopic parasite that doctors believed killed Josiah McIntyre and that led to warnings for others not to drink tap water.

After the death of a young boy due to contaminated city water in Lake Jackson, health officials are working to ensure the water supply in Brazoria County is safe — a process they say could take months.

Josiah McIntyre was just 6 years old when he died on Sept. 8 after suffering from headaches, fever and nausea. It turned out he caught an infection from the brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri.

Traces of the deadly microbe were found at several different water outlets in Lake Jackson, and Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday issued a disaster declaration for Brazoria County.

The city is now on a boil water notice.

"This is a tragedy," said John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services. "It's a rare tragedy, but now we have the opportunity to look in-depth at the water systems here and elsewhere."

The state, city and the local water authority are all working to make the water safe again, he said.

But it'll take a while.

"We have to get through the boil water notice first, which could take two to three weeks," said Toby Baker, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. "After that, we have to get chlorine levels to a state that can burn the entire system, scour the system and kill the amoebas. That could take up to an additional 60 days."

The Brazosport Water Authority distributes water to other places in Brazoria County as well, but officials said testing showed the water is safe outside of Lake Jackson, home to 27,000 people.

City workers Kristina Watson, right, and Lennie Miner, a maintenance foreman monitor Monday, Sept. 28, 2020, test water flowing out of a hydrant in Lake Jackson, Texas. The city remains under a boil water advisory after a deadly microbe was found to have caused the death of a 6-year-old boy exposed to contaminated water in the city supply.

The deadly amoeba enters the brain through the nose, said Dr. Scott Lea, professor of internal medicine and infectious diseases at the University of Texas Medical Branch.

"The organism is able to invade through that anatomical structure to get into the central nervous system where it causes a meningoencephalitis, which is devastating to the individual who's affected," he said.

This undated photo provided by Maria Castillo shows her son Josiah McIntyre.

Naegleria fowleri can be found throughout the United States.

"It's more common in warm soils, particular in the summer months," Lea said.

The amoeba thrives in standing water, such as ponds, tanks and insufficiently chlorinated pools, not so much in rivers or streams, and it does not occur in saltwater, Lea said. Chlorine kills it.

It's still not clear how the amoeba got into Lake Jackson's water system.

Besides pumping the system full of chlorine, the TCEQ will bring in experts to look at possible breaches, "to see if there are any places where unfiltered water is entering the water system that the city doesn't know about," the TCEQ’s Baker said.

He and other officials said this incident is a first for any public water system in Texas. But there have been known cases of naegleria fowleri-caused deaths in public drinking water systems in Arizona, Louisiana as well as in Australia and Pakistan.

While the naegleria infection is fatal in more than 95% of cases, it's still rare. Only a handful of Americans get sick from it every year, primarily children and young adults.

In Texas, there have been 36 infections between 1972 and 2017.

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Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is currently the News 88.7 business reporter. Florian’s stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters, the Houston Press Club, National Association of Real Estate Editors, and Public Radio...

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