Calling for a “total re-examination,” Gov. Pat McCrory on Monday urged new oversight for the U.S. National Whitewater Center in response to the death of an Ohio teenager who contracted a rare brain infection after visiting the park.
The Charlotte center is the only one of three similar parks that is not regulated to help prevent waterborne illnesses. Authorities who regulate water quality do not routinely test for the brain-eating amoeba that is suspected in the teen’s June 19 death.
“I think there needs to be a total re-examination of classifying this type of park similar to a swimming pool, where there’s ongoing testing,” McCrory told the Observer after an appearance in Concord. “From what I have read, I’m going to talk more to my Department of Health and Human Services. But there’s no doubt a lesson (can be) learned from this terrible tragedy. My heart sinks for this young girl who lost her life.”
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. Infections can occur when water goes up the nose.
The Whitewater Center closed water channels used for rafting Friday after preliminary tests detected the amoeba.
On Monday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it confirmed results from preliminary tests in two samples it took from the park.
Officials are still awaiting final lab results from seven other samples where preliminary tests found the presence of the amoeba, said Dr. Jennifer Cope, a medical epidemiologist for the CDC.
She said the test results so far are “concerning.”
Naegleria fowleri rarely causes infections, with only about 35 reported in the United States between 2005 and 2014. But the infections are nearly always fatal.
After being notified that Seitz had died, Whitewater officials said they added chlorine to the water. The CDC later tested for the amoeba.
Cope said she believes the chlorine was ineffective and did not reduce the amoeba in the water. Several factors, including the water’s location in an open environment, can reduce the the chlorine’s effectiveness, she said.
Mecklenburg County tests 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.
But since it opened in 2006, authorities have viewed the center more like a natural river or stream than a pool.
Asked why they have not regulated a park where visitors are frequently soaked or fall into the water, Mecklenburg County officials said Monday they did not know.
“That makes no sense,” said county commissioner Pat Cotham.
Cotham said commissioners had an obligation to look into new regulations for the Whitewater Center and other local water attractions to prevent more deaths.
Commissioner Bill James said it is likely that the county will adopt rules for the center similar to those for public pools.
State Sen. Joel Ford, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, released a written statement offering to help craft new state legislation.
“It is paramount that we have in place measures to monitor water quality and ensure that patrons have a safe and healthy environment,” Ford said.
Lack of oversight
At a press conference Monday, Dr. Marcus Plescia, Mecklenburg County’s health director, acknowledged that the Whitewater Center has operated largely outside government supervision.
The 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.
Plescia said he believes the Whitewater Center has been diligent with efforts to keep the water safe but acknowledged that he had not seen records related to water testing and conditions at the park.
Whitewater Center officials did not return a phone call seeking comment.
The 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.
Plescia said it is clear that the radiation system, which is 10 years old, cannot eliminate the amoeba to that extent. He said he will recommend that the Whitewater Center hire a consultant to help address such issues.
Meanwhile, Plescia said the park’s whitewater channels will remain closed indefinitely. It may take several weeks to clean potentially infected areas and determine when it is safe to reopen.
Even after the channels are opened again, Plescia said it will be difficult to guarantee the amoeba will be eliminated since it is common in warm, open bodies of water.
“We can’t eradicate it from lakes and streams,” he said. “When we go out in the world, we do take some risks.”
Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027