Charlotte’s U.S. National Whitewater Center is the only one of three similar parks in the nation that is not regulated to help prevent waterborne illnesses.
That may change following the death last Sunday of an Ohio teenager who contracted a rare brain infection after visiting the park. The center suspended its whitewater activities Friday after water tests detected the amoeba that causes her disease.
Authorities that regulate water quality do not routinely test for the presence of the amoeba. But Mecklenburg County does test the water in public pools, including parks and apartment complexes, once a year for pH and disinfectant levels. State regulations require public pool owners to test pH and chlorine levels daily.
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The water also is tested regularly at two other whitewater parks in Oklahoma and Maryland that are similar to Charlotte’s – artificial rivers created by pumped water.
No such standards exist for the Whitewater Center, which attracts hundreds of thousands of people a year to concrete channels that recirculate 12 million gallons of water.
While the center’s primary purpose is not swimming, kayakers and rafters routinely get soaked or go in the water. County officials see it as more like a river than a pool.
“They are not regulated by us, by the local health department, by the state, and they’re not really regulated by the federal government,” said Rusty Rozzelle, Mecklenburg County’s water-quality chief.
Lauren Seitz, 18, died of a rare brain infection caused by a single-celled animal, the amoeba Naegleria fowleri, after visiting the center on June 8. Seitz was in a raft that overturned. The amoeba can infect a person when water goes up the nose.
Regulating the center’s water “will be looked at going forward because (the death) has brought a lot of attention to the potential for problems,” Dr. Marcus Plescia, Mecklenburg County’s health director, told the Observer.
Plescia added that regulating the Whitewater Center would be challenging because it’s much more complex than a swimming pool. Stormwater can flow into the open body of water, he said, making it hard to achieve the sanitation level of pools.
“I doubt it is realistic to set a standard that the amoeba not be present,” he said by email Saturday. “We are looking at whether there might be ways to at least monitor its concentration. Whatever we do, we will make clear to the public what the limitations are and that we may not be able to completely eliminate risk.”
Any changes might require state action, Plescia said.
County commissioner Pat Cotham, who has taken calls from worried parents, said she will also raise the issue of regulation.
“I do think it would be good to think about, does it make sense to test this?” she said. “I know the Whitewater Center is in a different category than swimming pools, so we don’t test the Whitewater Center. But I’m just thinking that maybe we should, especially in the summer when Dr. Plescia said organisms grow more in warmer weather. So I’m going to ask that question.”
The Whitewater Center’s sole water-testing obligation is written into its lease with Mecklenburg County for its 1,100-acre site on the Catawba River. The lease agreement specifies that the center test its water once a week for fecal coliform, a widely used indicator of disease-carrying organisms.
Results are analyzed by an independent lab and any high readings are supposed to be reported to the county. No bacterial problems have been reported in recent years, Rozzelle said.
The Whitewater Center said in a statement that it “has been in compliance with all required water quality standards and meets the requirements of all regulatory standards and authorities.”
The Observer asked the center Wednesday to view water test results. The center’s Eric Osterhus said he would check with managers but did not respond further.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is investigating the teen’s death, says the amoeba that killed her – Naegleria fowleri – is common in warm bodies of freshwater, particularly in southern states.
“You cannot get a Naegleria fowleri infection from a properly cleaned, maintained, and disinfected swimming pool,” the CDC’s website says.
‘State of the art’ filters
The Whitewater Center filters its water with a system of stacked discs that trap particles. That is followed by ultraviolet radiation that the center says is potent enough to “inactivate” 99.99 percent of waterborne amoeba.
Mecklenburg County officials call the treatment system state of the art. But the county said on Facebook that the amoeba was not found in parts of the Catawba River near the Whitewater Center that were tested.
Asked if the center’s filtration or UV systems have ever malfunctioned, Plescia said Friday that he’s not aware of any problems with the systems, or of previous health issues traced to the center.
Osterhus said only that the systems “require regular maintenance, as with all of our mechanical systems present at the USNWC.” Organic material, including algae, can be found in the whitewater channels, same as in any body of open water, he said.
Asked Saturday for maintenance logs of the filtration and disinfection systems, Osterhus referred the Observer to the CDC and local health officials. “They have thoroughly examined our systems and processes and can provide their perspective,” he said.
Most of the center’s water comes from Charlotte Water, the municipal utility that is regulated under federal water standards. The center also draws water from two wells. The county tested the wells only when they were constructed.
Visitors to the center sign waivers saying they assume risks and accept responsibility for their possible injury, illness, disability, emotional distress and death. The risks of rafting, kayaking and other water-based activities include “drowning or other complications associated with immersion in water.”
First of its kind
Charlotte’s was the first closed-loop course of its kind in the U.S. when it opened in 2006, said Jeffrey Gustin of S20 Design, project manager for a new whitewater park in Oklahoma City. Gustin previously worked for a firm that designed Charlotte’s park.
When Charlotte’s center opened, there was no template for how to regulate its water quality, Gustin said.
“Discussions were held between the facility, the state and the county prior to construction,” said Rick Christenbury, a Mecklenburg County spokesman.
“It was determined this type of facility did not meet the definition of a public swimming pool. It is a water recreation facility similar to rafting on a river. The weekly testing and disinfection they provide is not a regulatory requirement. They use the reports they receive to determine if additional treatment is needed to maintain water quality.”
In May, Oklahoma City’s new Riversport Rapids became the second U.S. park, after Charlotte, to pump municipal drinking water through an artificial whitewater course.
Officials there wrestled with how to regulate the park, ultimately deciding to place it under the state Department of Labor’s amusement park rules. The department applied the standards for public pools that the state’s health department uses.
State inspectors test the water once a year for pH, chlorine levels and other parameters. Park staff are required to test the water daily and keep records that the state may view.
Riversport Rapids uses different technology to filter water – a drum system that puts water through a gradation of screens. It disinfects water with ozone, a gaseous form of oxygen that kills microbes, and chlorine rather than ultraviolet radiation.
“Nothing’s 100 percent, but my understanding is that with the multiple (treatment and disinfection) layers they have, they’re supposed to be able to address anything that could be a public safety issue,” said Jim Buck, the Oklahoma labor department’s director of safety standards.
The water treatment systems in Charlotte and Oklahoma City are widely used in commercial pools and water parks, S20’s Gustin said.
A closed-loop whitewater park in western Maryland, Adventure Sports Center International, uses water from a lake rather than municipal water as Oklahoma City and Charlotte do. The state does not regulate the course. But Garrett County, where the park is located, includes it in twice-monthly water tests of E. coli bacteria at bathing beaches.
Clemson University scientist Lesly Temesvari said detecting Naegleria fowleri is difficult because, unlike bacteria and other contaminants, there are no quick or standardized tests for it.
“It would have to be specific to the amoeba, and there are no tests specific to the amoeba,” she said. “And even if there were, it’s not clear why there is so much amoeba and so few infections.”
Temesvari studies a different amoeba that causes 50 million gastrointestinal infections a year worldwide and kills about 100,000 people a year. Naegleria fowleri is also widespread but caused only 35 infections in the U.S. between 2005 and 2014, the CDC says. All but two were fatal.
Staff writer Kiana Cole contributed.
Infections are rare but deadly
Primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, which killed Ohio teenager Lauren Seitz, occurs when the amoeba Naegleria fowleri is forced up the nose. The resulting infection destroys brain tissue and is almost always fatal.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the amoeba is found in warm freshwater across the U.S., but that the risk of infection is very low. Only 138 cases have been reported since 1962, of which three patients survived. Drowning, by comparison, killed 34,000 people from 2001 to 2010.
The disease is not contagious and is usually contracted by swimming, but six cases have been traced to unusual sources. Those included victims who played on a water slide that used tap water; immersed their head in a bathtub; performed ritual nasal rinsing; and mixed solutions for nasal irrigation in a neti pot.
The effectiveness of medical treatments is unclear because almost all cases have been fatal. Two patients survived infections after being treated with a new drug, miltefosine, and aggressive management of brain swelling.