WTF: Brain-Eating Amoeba Found In Florida Tap Water
Could Florida's Failing Water Systems Be The Culprit?
Listen, when we talk about brain-eating anything, it’s not good. When we talk about brain-eating amoebas in our drinking water, it’s really not good.
If you’re been watching the news in Florida, then you may have heard that a man recently died due to an infection from a brain-eating amoeba.
The Florida Department of Health in Charlotte County (that’s on the Gulf Coast side) has confirmed one case of infection from Naegleria fowleri, as a result of doing a sinus rinse with tap water.
You might be familiar with neti pots, which are containers used to help rinse mucus from the nasal cavities when you’re dealing with allergies, sinus problems, or a cold.
The practice is considered safe when using distilled water. Tap water… is a different story.
Amoeba In The Water
Naegleria fowleri is a microscopic single-celled amoeba that lives in warm, fresh water and can cause a rare but almost-always fatal brain infection known as primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention count 157 PAM infections in the U.S. between 1962 and 2022.
One interesting piece about this case is that CDC data suggests this is the first PAM infection ever reported in February or March.
While these infections are rare, it’s not the first time we’ve discovered brain-eating amoebas in our tap water.
I was on the scene in Louisiana in 2014 when three different communities discovered deadly brain-eating amoebas in their drinking water systems within weeks of one another.
In Louisiana, super-nitrification build-up in the water system contributed to the problem. Nitrification is a microbial process that converts ammonia and similar nitrogen compounds into nitrite (NO2–) and then nitrate (NO3–).
Nitrification can occur in water systems that contain chloramines.
A Closer Look At Chloramines
Chloramines are what I like to call the godfather of where we’ve gone wrong with our drinking water.
Municipal water districts are adding ammonia to chlorinated water—a process called chloramination—to help meet standards set by the EPA to lower levels of disinfection byproducts (DBPs).
Ammonia is actually a food source for bacteria, so when the chloramine breaks down, the ammonia feeds the bacteria it is supposed to stop. Further, a byproduct of this compound is nitrification. Nitrogen is released into the water, which causes more growth of bacteria.
Something else interesting about Naegleria fowleri is that while the amoeba can destroy brain tissue, it mostly enjoys a diet of bacteria, not brains.
DBPs form when the disinfectant reacts with natural compounds in the water. Many of these DBPs have been shown to cause cancer, including trihalomethanes (THMs), which are a group of chemical compounds.
Today, we have more than a thousand cities with unsafe levels of total THMs (TTHMs) in their water. Any imbalance of THMs means the system is out of balance.
These compounds occur when organic matter in the water reacts with chlorine, so essentially the system is not being chlorinated properly—meaning you have too much or not enough.
When you know what’s in the water, you can treat it more effectively instead of creating a chemical cocktail mix. But many cities just don’t get to the root of the problem by working to find the source of the organic matter.
In the last forty years, we have discovered more than 600 other DBPs in chlorinated tap water, including haloacetic acids (HAAs), which are also known to cause cancer. As you can imagine, the water has only become more polluted (with both organics and inorganics), creating more treatment headaches and violations.
Guess what a quick search of Charlotte County Utilities water found?
Total trihalomethanes and HAAs. Of course both were below the “legal limit” created by the EPA but far above expert health limits.
Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs) was found at 261 times above EWG's Health Guideline.
Haloacetic acids (HAA5) was found at 254 times above EWG's Health Guideline.
“N. fowleri has been described as an emerging parasite by some, and an emerging medical threat by others,” he and his co-authors write in the study. “We suggest that there has been an increase in reported cases, especially since 2000. However, we do not know if the incidence of the disease is actually increasing or if the increasing numbers of publications merely reflects its increasing recognition and notoriety, especially since the evocative name ‘brain-eating amoeba’ has been adopted by the media and by some biologists.”
He told New Scientist that cases are concentrated in the U.S. in part because of the high concentration of specialists in the country able to accurately diagnose the illness.
He also mentioned the other hotspot for this issue is Karachi, Pakistan, because of their poor water-supply system.
“If you chlorinate adequately, you don’t have a problem—and also, importantly, that kills the bacteria on which the amoeba feeds,” he told the publication.
Florida’s Failing Water Grades
Florida might be at the top of places you’d like to visit in the wintertime, but it’s important to know where Florida ranks when it comes to water quality.
In 2022, Florida ranked No. 1 for the highest total acres of lakes too polluted for swimming or healthy aquatic life, according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project.
That means the water can have high levels of fecal matter and other bacteria that can sicken people or have low levels of oxygen or other pollution that can harm fish and other aquatic life. The state ranked second for polluted estuaries.
The findings were based on Florida’s own 2020 water quality report filed with the U.S. EPA. The same reporting from other states was used to compile the rankings. Ohio and the Great Lakes were excluded because they compile data on lakes differently.
The Environmental Integrity Project launched the project to track the progress of the Clean Water Act near its 50th anniversary.
But that’s not all.
Florida was also ranked as one of the top 10 states with the worst tap water by Water Defense, an online resource for water quality.
The site writes about Florida:
Like many other U.S. states, Florida relies on groundwater sources for tap water. Yet, with each passing day, the groundwater sources in Florida are getting more and more contaminated due to population growth and unregulated agricultural and industrial waste disposal practices.
Hence, tap water has alarming levels of a variety of contaminants, from heavy metals like hexavalent chromium to newly emerging chemical compounds like PFAS.
Additionally, in the wake of several devastating hurricanes, there were two different algae outbreaks in Florida in 2017 and 2018. Also known as the Red Tide epidemic, the outbreak of red algae affected and still continues to affect saltwater, while the blue-green algae affect ponds and streams.
Speaking Of Tiny Organisms…
Last week, Florida state environmental officials said high levels of red tide, also known as a harmful algal blooms, were reported off the coast of Sarasota County.
Florida's Gulf Coast is home to Karenia brevis, a microscopic organism that can multiply in large numbers, forming blooms that turn the water a reddish-brown hue, that many local have come to call “red tide.”
Red tides have been documented along Florida's Gulf Coast since the 1840s, but scientists still can’t predict exactly when red tides will occur.
Florida experts continue to research prevention and mitigation measures to minimize impact.
The National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science has issued an advisory, cautioning that beachgoers may experience respiratory irritation while visiting beaches in Sarasota, Manatee, and Pinellas counties.
Respiratory complications, especially for those with preexisting respiratory conditions like asthma, can be triggered by exposure to red tide, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Others can also experience cold-like symptoms and eye irritation.
Tap water isn’t safe for use as a nasal rinse because it’s not adequately filtered or treated. Some tap water contains low levels of organisms—such as bacteria and protozoa, including amoebas—that may be safe to swallow because stomach acid kills them.
But in your nose, these organisms can stay alive in nasal passages and cause potentially serious infections. They can even be fatal in some rare cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
What Types of Water Are Safe to Use?
Distilled or sterile water, which you can buy in stores. The label will state “distilled” or “sterile.”
Water passed through a filter designed to trap potentially infectious organisms. CDC has information on selecting these filters.
Florida, it’s time to clean up your act! Sound off in the comments below if you agree. And once again, where’s the EPA to investigate this further?!?