Louisiana warns of brain-eating parasite in tap water

By Stephen C. Webster
Friday, December 16, 2011 16:54 EDT
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A man uses a neti pot to irrigate his sinuses. Photo: Flickr user BuffawhatTM.
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Officials in Louisiana warned this week that a brain-eating parasite known as Naegleria fowleri might survive in some of the state’s tap water, cautioning that if residents use the common cold remedy known as a neti pot, they should thoroughly boil their water first.

Neti pots work by injecting a hot water/salt solution into users’ sinuses, flushing out mucus and clearing the nasal passages. Although Naegleria fowleri is most commonly found in pond water, lakes and rivers, officials said that two people in Mississippi recently fell victim to to the amoeba, seemingly after they used tap water in their neti pots. The two male victims, both killed by their infection, were ages 20 and 51.

The link between Naegleria fowleri and tap water should not be cause for alarm, officials told a reporter for LiveScience.com.

“If you are irrigating, flushing or rinsing your sinuses, for example, by using a Neti pot, use distilled, sterile or previously boiled water to make up the irrigation solution,” Louisiana epidemiologist Dr. Raoult Ratard said in a statement to reporters. “Tap water is safe for drinking but not for irrigating your nose.”

The microscopic creature is not capable of doing any harm to people if the water is consumed as intended: instead, it only activates if it manages to get deep into the sinuses of its victim.

“Naegleria fowleri infects people by entering the body through the nose,” the Centers for Disease Control explained. “This typically occurs when people go swimming or diving in warm freshwater places, like lakes and rivers. In very rare instances, Naegleria infections may also occur when contaminated water from other sources (such as inadequately chlorinated swimming pool water or heated tap water <47°C) enters the nose. Once the ameba enters the brain, it causes a usually fatal infection called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM)."

Whether or not the two victims actually contracted the amoeba through tap water was still under investigation, but officials issued the warning anyway out of concern for public safety.

Photo: Flickr user BuffawhatTM.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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