CHARLOTTE COUNTY, Fla. — Is there a public health risk in Charlotte County's tap water? The question comes after Charlotte County health officials said a person was infected with a rare amoeba, possibly when they rinsed their sinuses with tap water.
The infection was reported in a news release Thursday morning, confirming a Florida case. Fox 4 contacted the CDC because they conduct tests that determine if someone has the amoeba, Nagleria fowleri. It can only be contracted through the nose.
The CDC's response was concerning. They say a Florida patient died on Feb. 20 and had rinsed their sinuses daily with unboiled tap water. However, the agency wouldn't confirm where that person lived.
Eric Milbrandt, director of the marine laboratory at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, told Fox 4 the disease caused by Nagleria fowleri is extremely rare. He said it can only affect people through the nose, not by ingesting it.
“It’s found in hot springs, it’s found in warm water, lakes, and it can also be found in hot water tanks and, in some very rare cases, in tap water," Milbrandt said.
Tap water is exactly what officials are now looking into.
Fox 4 reached out to the Charlotte County spokesperson, asking if the public water treatment facilities normally prevent the presence of this amoeba. Spokesperson Brian Gleason insisted the Department of Health was the only entity who could comment, though health officials do not operate the county water system.
When we contacted the Public Utilities Director John Elias, he referred Fox 4 to another person in the department who is better equipped to answer this question. As of Thursday night, we have not heard back.
“A proper, municipal treatment plant would have filtration, chlorination, and testing," Milbrandt said. "So your drinking water should be fine.”
Going back to the Department of Health in Charlotte County, we asked if the death reported by the CDC is the same person in their press release. We called them prior to an interview, and the contact told us the patient was a man and was being treated for the amoeba. They added the person lived in two homes in Charlotte County.
When speaking with the health officer in person, no answer was given.
"I'm not going to speak to any specific cases," said Joe Pepe, health officer for Charlotte County.
When asked does the public not have the right to know if somebody died, Pepe told us to send in our questions and walked away. The news release stated officials promised to work with local public utilities to identify potential links and make any necessary corrections.
"What we're working on right now is a good investigation so that we can identify a point source, but we saw an opportunity to lean forward and being responsible and just kind of helping educate the community on this piece of it at the very least," Pepe said.
The health officer did say the department was being responsible by helping educate the community.
"But right now, where we've come to is that we've recognized that it may be an opportunity for an alert going out to the community regarding water safety and sinus safety, especially in reference to when a Nagleria case comes about," Pepe said.
Nagleria fowleri infections are usually associated with swimming in freshwater lakes and rivers, but can be found in tap water.
The CDC says this is the first case ever in Florida where a person was infected through tap water.
On February 20, 2023, CDC received notification of a death from a confirmedNaegleria fowleriinfection in a Florida resident. The adult patient reportedly performed nasal rinsing daily with unboiled tap water, which is thought to be the source of the infection.CDC is supporting the Florida Department of Health in its investigation of the case. This is the first reported case of Naegleria fowleri infection in the United States this year, and the first ever reported in winter months in the United States. For more information on this case, contact the Florida Department of Health.
Naegleria fowleri infections are rare. From 2013 through 2022, 29 cases were reported in the United States, with between 0 and 5 cases reported annually. Naegleria fowleri is an ameba that thrives in warm fresh water like lakes, rivers, and hot springs around the world. In very rare instances, Naegleria fowleri infections might also occur when contaminated water from other sources (such as inadequately chlorinated swimming pool water or contaminated tap water) enters the nose. People who irrigate, flush, or rinse their sinuses should use distilled water or tap water that has been boiled and cooled.
If water containing the ameba goes up the nose, the ameba can enter the brain and cause a devastating infection called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). Most cases occur in southern-tier states during the summer, but evidence suggests that the geographical areas where Naegleria fowleri infections occur in the United States are changing, possibly due to climate change.
For questions or concerns about local water quality or safety, contact your local water utility or local health department.
For more information on Naegleria fowleri, visit www.cdc.gov/parasites/naegleria [cdc.gov].
DOH-Charlotte is providing nasal clips and educational materials at the location below while supplies last: 1100 Loveland Blvd, Port Charlotte, FL 33980
Health officials say you should seek medical attention right away if you experience any of the following symptoms after a nasal water exposure, such as a sinus rinse: headache, fever, nausea, disorientation, vomiting, stiff neck, seizures, loss of balance, or hallucinations.
For more information on this amoeba, please visit the CDC’s website.