NEW ORLEANS — While officials try to pin down the source of a deadly amoeba found in the water supply of a suburban New Orleans community, bottled water sales in St. Bernard Parish have skyrocketed and some people worry about washing their faces in the shower.
That's despite experts who say the only danger is to people who manage to get the microscopic organism way up their noses. Its only entry to the brain is through minute openings in a bone about level with the top of the eyeball, said Dr. Raoult Ratard, Louisiana's state epidemiologist.
But belief comes hard to many people. "As far as taking a bath or shower, you got no other choice," said Debbie Sciortino. "But I ain't drinking it, I ain't giving it to the dogs and I ain't cooking with it either."
The state Department of Health and Hospitals on Thursday tried to dispel common "myths and rumors" about the amoeba Naegleria fowleri (nuh-GLEE-ree-uh FOW-ler-eye) — starting with the notion that the parish water isn't safe to drink. Meanwhile, the parish held a public meeting about its water Thursday night.
The worries began Sept. 12, when the state health department reported that parish water in Violet and Arabi tested positive for the amoeba that had killed a 4-year-old Mississippi boy in August after he visited St. Bernard Parish
Jonathan Yoder, an epidemiologist in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's waterborne disease prevention branch, said Naegleria has never before been found in water treated by a U.S. water system.
There have been 132 documented infections from the amoeba since 1962, almost all of them fatal, health officials say.
Both of Louisiana's 2011 infections were of people who used tap water to flush out their sinuses. However, each of the earlier cases, Yoder said the amoeba was found in the house's hot water system but not in either municipal water or water coming from the home's cold water tap.
But still people worry.
"Nobody's washing their faces in the showers anymore. Nobody's drinking the water," Angela Miller of Violet said during a break Thursday outside the Chalmette hair salon where she works. "My neighbor has a pool that they have emptied. And they have no water in there now until this matter is cleared up."
That's not necessary, experts say. Stomach acids, boiling and chlorine all will kill the amoeba.
Many people think water should test free of the amoeba before they use it, DHH said, but testing tap water for the amoeba is not as important as making sure that it holds enough chlorine to kill the creature.
Last Friday — the latest available report — there was no detectable free chlorine in water mains and other testing stations along nearly two-thirds the length of the long, narrow parish.
To get the recommended level of one-half part chlorine per million at the system's outer reaches, the parish has been putting about eight times that amount into the water at its treatment plant, said Jake Causey, chief engineer for the state Office of Public Health's engineering services section.
Investigators may never know just how Naegleria got into the pipes.
It usually lives just above the bottom of fresh water, feeding on bacteria. It spreads farthest in warm water. Minnesota reported two infections in the past few years, but the vast majority have been in 15 Southern states, with more than half the total in Florida and Texas.
It might have entered and survived in the water system in many ways, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and population loss since then, Causey said.
The parish had to repair more than 1,000 broken pipes after floodwaters receded, he said. "When it was brought back online, the water was chlorinated, flushed and sampled. But water mains can build up biofilms over time, and can get microorganisms in there that stay behind the biofilm."
Meanwhile, the population fell from 67,000 before Katrina to 35,000 afterward and is now about 44,000, Causey said. With fewer people, water moved more slowly through the pipes. A couple of years ago, he said, the parish installed 50 automatic flushing stations to dump water out of the mains periodically, and keep it moving.
Louisiana's cases are unusual. Nearly all of the cases reported nationwide each year are from swimming or playing in warm fresh water — the source of this year's three other infections, in Florida, Texas and Arkansas, Yoder said.
Twelve-year-old Kali (KAY-lee) Hardig, whose parents released her name and who spoke at a news conference when she was released from a Little Rock hospital Sept. 11, is only the second known, well-documented survivor in the U.S., said Yoder.
Doctors were able to use a drug that is used against another parasite and kills Naegleria in lab tests, Yoder said.
Kali's doctors "caught it early, they treated it aggressively. ... She did survive. We're very encouraged by that development," he said.
And some people who had been avoiding the parish water apparently are drinking it again.
At B & G Fresh Market in Chalmette, owner Brian Gab said he was probably ordering four or five times as much water as usual last week. Now, "I would say it's probably triple."