In Brief

'Brain-eating' amoeba in Texas city's water supply kills 6-year-old

Sprinkler connected to hose sprays water over lawn.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

A "brain-eating" amoeba has been found in the water supply of a Texas city where a 6-year-old boy recently died from an infection with the organism, according to news reports.

The boy, Josiah McIntyre, who lived in Lake Jackson, a city near Houston, Texas, died on Sept. 8 of a rare infection with the amoeba, known as Naegleria fowleri, according to NBC News. Naegleria fowleri is naturally found in warm freshwater, such as lakes and rivers, and people usually become infected after swimming or diving in bodies of contaminated freshwater, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Infections, which are rare, happen when contaminated water goes up the nose — you cannot become infected from swallowing contaminated water, the CDC says.

Josiah's family said he may have been exposed to Naegleria fowleri from either their home's water hose, or a city "splash pad," where water sprays up from the ground, according to The New York Times. Officials tested 11 samples from Lake Jackson's water supply, and found that three were "preliminary positive," including samples from a city fire hydrant, the splash pad storage tank and Josiah's home water hose faucet, the Times reported.

Related: 5 key facts about brain-eating amoebas

On Sunday (Sept. 27), Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for Brazoria County, where Lake Jackson is located, due to the presence of Naegleria fowleri in the water supply. The organism poses "an imminent threat to public health and safety, including loss of life," Abbott said.

In Brazoria County, officials released a "do not use" water advisory for Lake Jackson, which was later changed to a "boil notice," meaning residents are advised to boil water for drinking and cooking, while the city works to flush and disinfect the water system. Until the flushing and disinfection process is complete, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality advised residents to avoid activities that could cause water to go up the nose, such sniffing water up your nose while bathing or in the shower, submerging your head in bathing water or playing with hoses and sprinklers.

Purging the city's water system will take 60 days, Modesto Mundo, city manager of Lake Jackson, said on Monday (Sept. 28), according to the Associated Press. This process includes removing the old water, disinfecting the system and returning fresh water, the AP reported.

Infections with Naegleria fowleri are almost always fatal; however, infections are very rare, with the typical number of U.S. infections ranging from zero to eight per year, according to the CDC. In addition to Josiah's case, at least two other fatal cases of Naegleria fowleri have been reported this year, including a 13-year-old boy, who became infected after swimming in a lake in North Florida, Live Science previously reported.

Naegleria fowleri is a heat-loving organism, and in the U.S., most infections occur in southern states, particularly during the summer months after it has been hot for prolonged periods, which raises the temperature of freshwater, according to the CDC. Infections may be becoming more common as water temperatures rise due to climate change, Live Science previously reported.

Although extremely rare, infections from contaminated drinking water systems have occured in the past, including the case of a 4-year-old boy in Louisiana who died in 2013 after he likely become infected from using a lawn Slip 'N Slide, according to a 2015 report of the case published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

Editor's note: This article was updated on Tuesday, Sept. 29 to include more information on the water system's disinfection process and how long it will take.

Originally published on Live Science.  

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.