SAINT BERNARD PARISH, La. – Lester Evans prefers to drink bottled water. If he runs out, he’ll drink from the tap, but only when he needs to take his medication.
“It’s like pouring a cup of bleach down the hatchet,” he said. “If I don’t take the medication, it’s bad for me. If I drink the water, it’s bad for me. What you gonna do?”
The 83-year-old has lived in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, for 45 years. He reminisced about the days of “good, old-fashioned” cistern water. “That might not have been healthy either, but at least it tasted nice.”
Drinking water sources have changed a lot since Lester was a boy. The St. Bernard community once relied on the huge, rainwater harvesting cistern tanks. Now, the majority drink from bottles as they don’t trust the water flowing from the tap.
More than 44,000 people live in St. Bernard, about 5 miles from downtown New Orleans. Residents complain that they can’t drink their water because of the “overpowering” taste of chlorine.
Officials detected Naegleria fowleri, otherwise known as “brain-eating amoeba,” in the water in September 2013. They have found brain-eating amoeba in the water a number of times since. A spokeswoman with the Louisiana Department of Health said it’s safe to drink, just as long as it doesn’t “go up your nose.”
Workers treat the water with chlorine to kill the species. While locals don’t want the amoeba, they are now paying for water they won’t drink – and which can irritate their skin.
Lester Evans’ wife, Frances, refuses to drink any water, whether it comes from a bottle or tap.
“She don’t trust none of it, or like the taste of it,” he said. They stock their fridge with bottles of water, some which are filled with grape juice. “I drink the bottled water, then fill it up with what she likes to drink … so it’s easier to carry around.”
Just over a year ago, doctors diagnosed Frances Evans with progressive supranuclear palsy, a brain disorder. She can no longer speak and can barely walk. They installed railings in the hallway to help her move around safely.
“Ah, we had a great life together. That’s the love of my life right there,” Lester Evans said. The couple are known as “Captain Swampy and Sweet Lips” and have been married for 65 years. “We used to fish for a living, until (Hurricane) Katrina washed the boat away.”
As someone who spent his life on the water, he believes he knows a lot about it. “The water in St. Bernard is supplied from the Mississippi River, and people say the water here got bad after Katrina, but I’m telling you, it was bad long before then.”
He said the chlorine in the water sometimes irritates his wife’s skin after he bathes her. “You can’t stay in the shower or bath too long or you’ll get a red, raw rash. I suppose it can’t be good for you.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers chlorine levels up to 4 milligrams per liter safe in drinking water. Anything above that can lead to dry, flaky skin – particularly if residents already have eczema or other skin conditions. The Water and Sewer Division of the St. Bernard Parish Government say the chlorine levels are within CDC guidelines, but they did not confirm how much they add to the water system.
Locals refer to Naegleria fowleri as “the amoeba,” and they’re concerned about why it keeps reappearing in Louisiana water systems, despite the fact that workers add chlorine to the water.
Lester Evans, who has a number of grandchildren, spoke about the 4-year-old boy who died in St. Bernard in 2013, when tap water containing brain-eating amoeba went up his nose.
“You have to be concerned for the kids more, and my daughter doesn’t let them drink the water,” he said. “Me and my wife, we’ve lived a good life, ain’t no point being concerned for ourselves no more.”