What's in the Water: new law mandating higher chlorine residuals

What's in the Water: new law mandating higher chlorine residuals

A new law takes effect August 1, requiring every municipal water system in the state to meet higher chlorine disinfection standards.

The goal is to eradicate a deadly amoeba that killed three people in Louisiana over the past three years when it went up their noses into their brains.

Every day, water samples are brought into the City of Lake Charles Water Division lab to ensure what we are using from the tap, water hose or in the shower is safe.

"We're sampling on a daily basis for chlorine, PH, hardness, some chemical constituents in the water," says city water superintendent Russell Buckels. "We're required to sample monthly for bacteriological analysis."

It has been a very busy summer for Buckels and his staff as they oversee a system wide chlorine burn. "You flush out the whole system with the free chlorine residual that burns a lot of that material up and then when that is done, you do a lot of flushing to remove any sediment matter that's accumulated," he said.

The Lake Charles water system is not the only one undergoing a free chlorine burn.

St. Bernard Parish recently completed its own after the treated water tested positive for naegleria fowleri, a deadly brain-eating amoeba. It is the very thing that killed Patrice Cusimano's son, Jeff, in 2011 in Arabi. "It's a pain like no other pain. A piece of your heart is taken out and you never get it back," she said.

Jeff contracted the amoeba from the water in his neti pot. A similar scenario played out in DeSoto Parish when a woman got the amoeba and died. Then, in 2013, a four-year-old boy in St. Bernard Parish contracted the amoeba from the water on a slip-n-slide.

Extensive water sampling and testing showed that the amoeba was present in both St. Bernard and DeSoto Parish's treated water supply. Those were the only two parishes in the state tested. It marked the first time in United States history that this occurred.

Those three deaths in two different corners of the state sparked the legislation to change Louisiana's water standards. Senate Bill 75, authored by Senator J.P. Morrell, called for an increase to minimum disinfection residuals of free or total chlorine throughout public and private water systems. Governor Bobby Jindal signed the bill into law on June 9 as Act 573.

The trace amount of chlorine in water systems has risen to 0.5 milligrams per liter and 25 percent more water sampling sites have been added, including the farthest connection on the line.

Jake Causey is the Department of Health and Hospital's Administrator for the Safe Drinking Water Program.

He says there are certain areas that are more at risk for the growth of amoebas and bacteria if the chlorine levels are not consistent. "Near dead ends, near low use areas are going to be more challenging for utilities to maintain those residuals," he said.

Causey says every water system in Southwest Louisiana is currently meeting the new chlorine standards.

Buckels says the water division in Lake Charles keeps hourly readings on the chlorine residuals. He says his system was already abiding by higher chlorine standards before the law changed and that the chlorine burn this summer is simply to flush out the system - something that has not been done for 30 years.

Buckels says the water's smell and discoloration are just temporary and not dangerous to residents. "It's a good thing to be smelling the chlorine," he said, "it lets you know your water system is doing due diligence in providing disinfection for your water system."

The mandated higher chlorine levels should keep the amoeba out of the water system and hold utilities accountable if their chlorine numbers drop. "We send them a notice of violation informing them of that and their response is to take corrective action immediately and get that residual back up," said Causey.

That disinfection might bring peace of mind to those worried about what is lurking in the water and those still reeling from a devastating loss.

"It is better than being dead," said Cusimano, "because if they don't get this cleaned out, it's going to happen again."

Water companies are required to provide an annual Consumer Confidence Report detailing chemicals found in the water. Click here to read the one for your company.

Tune in to Tuesday night's Nightcast where I take a look at what's in the water at local beaches, lakes and rivers. Find out why doctors are treating more cases of gastrointestinal issues and flesh-eating bacteria.

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