A reader wrote:
I've heard that the New Orleans tap water has brain-eating amoebas in it. Is that true? Is it safe to drink or take showers in?
The short answer: no, there are no brain-eating amoebas and yes, the water is safe. Visitors to New Orleans should generally not hesitate to drink freely of the tap water, swim in the pools, and bathe in the showers.
Every once in awhile, as with everywhere, something happens.
In July of 2015, to name a recent but rare example, power surges at two of the city's pumping stations caused a water pressure drop that led to a boil water advisory for most of New Orleans. It ended a few days later when tests came back clear for issues with the water.
During this time, people -- both locals and visitors -- were advised to use bottled water for drinking, brushing teeth, and even bathing. Most hotels provided water for guests, and additional water could obviously be purchased in bottled form from any number of groceries, pharmacies, and convenience stores.
Should such a thing happen while you're on vacation in New Orleans, you will be immediately informed of it by your hotel staff or bed and breakfast hosts, and they will very likely help with amenities to make you more comfortable.
If you're staying in an AirBnB or another unregulated short-term rental, you may just have to keep an eye on things yourself, depending on your host.
Checking NOLA.com or another local news source each morning is probably a good idea, in that case -- a boil-water advisory is highly unlikely, but there may be other pertinent news that you'll want to track yourself.
So about that amoeba thing... yes, every once in awhile, usually in the summer, some of the smaller parishes (the Louisiana word for what other states call counties) around New Orleans (not the city proper) will have a problem.
An overgrowth of bacteria in the water supply is sometimes an issue, but a certain amoeba called "Naegleria fowleri" is typically the culprit.
This amoeba can lead to a deadly form of encephalitis if it is ingested through the sinuses. Most cases have involved people (often children) getting water up their nose while swimming, though neti pot use has been attributed to multiple deaths in Louisiana.
Once again, generally speaking, it's not a problem (and it's unlikely that many tourists stay in the semi-rural working-class parishes where it is in the water supply), and residents of those parishes can even drink the water without worry. If there is an advisory and you happen to be staying in one of those parishes, you will be informed by your hotel.
However, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals does recommend that, for cautionary reasons, anyone using a neti pot anywhere in the state should use pre-boiled (and cooled, obviously) or distilled water for that purpose. So if you're on vacation and you neti pot regularly, pick up a jug of distilled water to be on the safe side. (This is actually the recommendation everywhere, but it's especially true in Louisiana.)