Yes, Amoebas in Louisiana’s Water Are Claiming Lives, But Chemicals Aren’t the Solution
Clean water is essential for human survival. More than half of our body is made up of water, and without it, we can only live for a couple of days. How much do we really know about what we’re drinking, though?
Local governments are charged with keeping our water supplies safe, but as I recently learned in the movie “Unacceptable Levels,” one city’s wastewater becomes another city’s drinking water. Also, there’s not a lake or stream left in this country that hasn’t been contaminated in some way.
Unfortunately for the people of Louisiana, something even more sinister is lurking in the waterways, and surprisingly, it wasn’t put there by a polluter.
Local officials have confirmed that a deadly, single-celled amoeba called Naegleria fowleri has infiltrated the drinking water system. Only 1/10th the width of a human hair, this organism is virtually invisible, and “does its damage by causing a devastating immune reaction rather than by actually devouring brain tissue,” according to NPR.
Brain infection caused by the amoeba has already claimed the life of 4-year-old child and caused illness in others. In 2011, two adults died after using contaminated water to rinse out their nasal passages via a Neti pot.
Microscopic image of Naegleria fowleri via CDC
As terrifying as it sounds to have brain-seeking amoebas in the water, scientists say drinking it isn’t exactly a death sentence. From NPR:
Naegleria fowleri is only dangerous when it gains entry into the brain. It does that when water containing the amoeba gets inhaled very deeply, into the area where the roof of the nasal passages meets the floor of the brain.
Drinking amoeba-contaminated water poses no risk, presumably because the single-celled organisms can’t survive in stomach acid. Normal bathing or showering isn’t a risk because even if tap water is contaminated, it doesn’t penetrate into the deepest nasal passages.
With that in mind, the tactics being used by local authorities to purge the amoebas from the water appear a bit more questionable: Officials are pumping extra chlorine into the municipal water supply to kill the bugs. I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly want to drink overly chlorinated water either.
The entire episode, while no particular person’s fault, is just another example of how we take clean water for granted in this country. We dump absurd amounts of it on our inedible lawns, and even more down the drain. Each year, more of America is swallowed up by drought, and some cities are already starting to run out of water.
As scientists try to figure out how the Naegleria fowleri ended up in Louisiana, I’m left thinking about how long we’ve simply taken what we want from the Earth and dumped onto her what we don’t, without any thought for the consequence to ourselves or the planet.
There will be a point of saturation, at which the planet will have had enough, and we’ll be left with nothing. Soon after, we’ll be gone. The amoebas will probably be alright, though.
Image: Anita Martinz