Editor's note: this article has been updated to clarify other instances of naegleria fowleri being discovered in public drinking water.
Infection by a brain-eating amoeba is rare, but can happen to anyone.
Lake Jackson on Friday became the second-ever municipal water source to test positive for naegleria fowleri linked to a death. Naegleria fowleri leads to the typically fatal primary amebic meningoencephalitis when it is able to reach the brain by entering the nose.
That was the case with Maria Castillo and Anthony McIntyre's 6-year-old son, Josiah.
On Sept. 3, Josiah complained of a headache. The next day, he was vomiting and had a fever, and on Sept. 5 Castillo took him to UTMB Health Angleton-Danbury Campus hospital, where they thought he might have a viral infection because of his symptoms.
With no changes the next morning, Castillo took Josiah to Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, where doctors did a CT scan and discovered swelling in his brain.
"They thought he had a type of meningitis or encephalitis," Castillo said.
Doctors admitted Josiah to the pediatric neurological ICU, where he was treated for both conditions.
"They … ended up drilling a hole into his head to relieve some of the pressure and to get some spinal fluid," she said.
Doctors were then able to send off samples for testing and discovered Josiah had been infected by a brain-eating amoeba, Castillo said.
"He passed away Tuesday (Sept. 8), that night," she said.
The only other confirmed instance of this amoeba in public drinking water that lead to a fatality is when a 4-year-old child died in August 2013. Louisiana health officials then discovered the amoeba in the water pipes of St. Bernard Parish, southeast of New Orleans, NPR reported. The child had been playing with a Slip'n'Slide connected to a household water faucet.
Between 2009 and 2018, 34 infections were reported in the country. Most cases, 30, came from recreational water, three were from cleaning out nasal passages with infected tap water and the other was the Louisiana 4-year-old, according to the CDC.
Castillo declined to comment on the potential infection of local water, but stressed that a brain-eating amoeba is real.
"It is very rare but it is still real, and you don’t think rare is gonna happen to you until it does," she said.
Josiah's dad, Anthony McIntyre, wouldn't wish his experience on his worst enemy, he said.
"It can happen either way if you take precautions or whatever," McIntyre said. "I’d rather be safe than sorry."
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality alerted the Brazosport Water Authority to a potential naegleria fowleri, a brain-eating amoeba, in the water supply after 9 p.m. Friday.
Extensive conversations with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and ensuring Brazosport Water Authority has an adequate disinfectant residual allowed officials to determine there is no safety issue for BWA’s distribution system Saturday morning, TCEQ announced, and the advisory continued for only Lake Jackson.
Three out of 11 samples of Lake Jacksons water showed initial genetic material for naegleria fowleri, a rare brain-eating amoeba, including one from a hose at Josiah McIntyre's home, Lake Jackson City Manager Modesto Mundo said.
“The civic center fountain, there is a small pit underneath the fountain, the water there showed an initial genetic material of the amoeba,” Mundo said at an emergency council meeting Saturday morning. “The fire hydrant showed an initial genetic material there and also the hose bin at the family’s home.”
The state took the CDC test samples Tuesday and the city got preliminary results Friday.
McIntyre "wasn't all that surprised" to find out the news, he said.
"I figured there was a pretty good possibility," he said.
He is hopeful that awareness will be raised about the risk, and urged people to do some reading on it to be aware and informed.
"It’s stuff you would think would never happen to you or your family," McIntyre said.
Kroger in Angleton was already overrun with shoppers buying water Saturday morning. Several shelves were cleaned out. Walmart’s water shelves were almost completely bare. Lines wrapped around the outside of Lake Jackson's H-E-B before 7 a.m. Saturday.
Calls flooded into 911 in the affected cities, overwhelming the system in Clute. Lake Jackson set up a volunteer information line that can be reached at 979-415-2788.
Angleton resident Dora Benavides stocked up on water at Kroger, concerned for herself and for her sister.
“I have well water, but I’m concerned about my sister because she lives in an apartment and she just had a stroke,” Benavides said. “I want to make sure she has water because she doesn’t have a vehicle right now so I’m taking her some water so she don’t have to worry about walking in and there’s no water for her.”
She hoped her water wasn’t contaminated because it’s well water, but “you never know,” she said.
“I got scared,” she said of her initial reaction to the news. “I drank water Friday at work but I hope I don’t get anything because, like I said, they announced it … today, last night?”
Her chief concern was her sister, she said.
“She can’t afford to get sick,” she said. “We all can’t afford to get sick on top of COVID.”
Mando Trevino thought residents should have been informed of the potential contamination sooner, he said.
“I think we should’ve been told earlier,” he said. “They say it’s been going for two weeks. How come they didn’t let us know? That’s my reaction.”
Some of the stores are not prepared with enough water for everybody, including Kroger, Trevino said.
“Right now they have a little bit, but it’s gonna run out within the next 10 minutes,” he said. “They don’t have that much … regular drinking water. They only have a limit of two, which I understand because everybody needs some.”
Lake Jackson set up a point of distribution at Brazosport College to give each resident's vehicle one case of water Saturday evening. It will continue Sunday morning.
Area chemical plants’ potable water was affected by the waterborne amoeba, but not production, plant representatives said.
BASF potable water was affected Saturday morning, though production uses a different source of water, Community Outreach Representative Tabitha Ray said.
“As soon as we were made aware of the TCEQ update regarding the water contamination, our emergency response team began immediately working from there to make sure that the water supply would be safe for our employees and contractors,” Ray said. “Though production uses a different source of water, that has not been affected by the waterborne amoeba. Water impacted did include our safety showers and eyewash stations.”
At about 2:30 p.m. Saturday, BASF resumed operations in Freeport, with the knowledge that Freeport was moved out of the water notice, Ray said.
"We are on a separate line from Lake Jackson, so we have resumed operations, and now we've turned our focus to be able to serve our community," Ray said. "We have some supplies that might help some of the organizations that may not have water, so we are reaching out to see if they need anything."
Upon notification Friday night, Port Freeport CEO Phyllis Saathoff said, they alerted their employees and tenants and immediately started making sure there was an adequate water supply.
Quintana has its own independent water system and does not draw from Brazosport Water Authority, Freeport LNG spokeswoman Wendy Mazurkewicz said.
Dow Chemical's operations were minimally impacted, a company spokeswoman said, but its research and administrative buildings in Lake Jackson have been shuttered for now.
“We have just received word that the Do Not Use Water Advisory has been lifted for all areas except Lake Jackson, so the water sources to Plants A and B will return to normal,” spokeswoman Gabriella Cone said. “Oyster Creek and Stratton Ridge Operations were not impacted as their water supply is not provided by BWA. The Texas Innovation Center remains closed until further notice.”