Brain-eating amoeba: How safe is the tap water in your home?

A man in south Florida died from a brain-eating infection last month after using tap water during sinus rinses, according to FOX 4.

The man, who has not been named but was identified as a resident of Charlotte County, died on Feb. 20, three days before the county health department issued a public alert about the infection.

DOH-Charlotte reported one case involving Naegleria fowleri, microscopic single-celled living amoebae, on Feb. 23. The department said infection is rare and can only happen when water contaminated with the amoebae enters through the nose, stressing that it cannot be contracted by drinking tap water. The amoebae can cause an infection of the brain known as primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) – a condition that does not have any known effective treatments.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the infection kills over 97% of the people who contract it. The CDC said the amoebae typically live in warm, freshwater bodies like lakes, rivers, and hot springs. It is also likely to be found living in sediment at the bottom of lakes, ponds, and rivers, so the agency advises against digging in or stirring up the soil in shallow, warm fresh water.

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But is it common for Naegleria fowleri to find its way into the tap water inside your home? While Charlotte County officials are figuring out how the brain-eating amoebae got into this man's tap water, it's a word of caution.

"The municipalities, the cities do a good job of disinfecting the water. They use chlorine, and then what comes out of there is clean," said Riggs Eckelberry with OriginClear, a company that specializes in water treatment solutions. "The problem is, somewhere in that distribution system, the parasites have gotten into the system somehow." 

While drinking, cooking, or bathing with tap water is generally safe, Eckelberry said it can become dangerous if you use it for sinus cleaning.

"If you're forcing it up your sinus, it's literally getting into the blood barrier, it's getting right up there and that's when it can penetrate," he said.  

 Eckelberry added that city and county systems do a pretty good job at cleaning our tap water. "The cities can only do so much, but generally, they deliver a sanitized water supply and people should not get paranoid about it. They will not pass away from drinking tap water."

Todd MacLaughlan is the CEO of Profounda Inc., an Orlando-based pharmaceutical company.  He said while chlorination systems can work, conditions for water stored inside your home can change. 

"Keep in mind, in a hot water tank in your house, the tank will bubble off the chlorine that disinfects your water, and you may end up with a tank that has the Naegleria fowleri in it," he said. "You just assume that if you're exposed to water, you're exposed to these amoebae. So you probably had a glass of water today at a restaurant or somewhere else, and you probably drank the amoebae. It's present everywhere."

So with that in mind, while the water may be safe to drink, it is recommended that sinus rinse solutions always be made with distilled or sterile water, which can be made by boiling tap water for at least one minute and then letting it cool.

FOX 35's Matt Trezza and Debora Choe contributed to this report.