A public health emergency has been called in the Louisiana town of St. Joseph as high levels of lead have been detected in the town's water supply. Residents have been urged not to drink or cook food in the potentially dangerous water.
Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards declared the emergency in the town on Dec. 16. Out of 13 recent government-taken samples, two exhibited high levels of lead and copper, CNN reports.
"The town of St. Joseph has experienced water problems for years due to the poorly maintained and deteriorating water distribution system. Frequent breaks in the water distribution system provide a potential health risk because of the drop in water pressure," reads an excerpt of a statement released by the governor's office on Dec. 16.
Rust-colored, foul smelling water had been coming out of the town's taps as early as February but authorities then stated the water was safe to drink, the International Business Times reports.
The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals is urging the citizens of St. Joseph not to drink the tap water for at least 30 days, said State Health Officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry. The state is distributing three liters of drinking water per person per day for the next 30 days, he said, as the authorities continue to test water from multiple water sources.
Resident Janet Thornton has been purchasing drinking water for her husband and herself every week for months.
"We don't have a lot of money so we just boil the water on the stove for our dogs. No one has told us if that's OK," she said, CNN reports.
Baton Rouge health officials gave her a bottle to collect water samples and was awaiting to be collected on Dec. 20, Thornton said. Results from tests of the water will be sent to her in two to four weeks.
"Right now, we're buying gallon jugs to wash our hair and using adult washrags to bathe because our water is only good for flushing toilets," Thornton said.
Guidry had expressed confidence there is no problem of absorption of the water's lead through the skin.
Thornton blamed the town's water supply problems to outgoing St. Joseph mayor Edward Brown's mismanagement of funds.
In 2015, the state granted the town $6 million to fix St. Joseph's decayed 90-year-old water infrastructure. But the money couldn't be released until the mayor turned in his annual town audit, due the last day of last year.
"We completed the audit this June and the money was released," Brown said. He called the delayed completion "a glitch."
In the meantime, it is up to the new incoming mayor - who takes office in January -- to solve the town's water supply issue.
"Most people are farmers and there is not a lot of money in this town," Thornton said. "Lots of people don't have vehicles, so my guess is they're drinking and bathing in this water.