Outdoor enthusiast Justin Adams had hoped kayaking lessons at the U.S. National Whitewater Center would give him a thrilling new hobby.
Instead, the experience left him worried for his life.
Adams, a Fort Mill business executive, said he doused himself up to 40 times as he learned to roll and maneuver his kayak last month, submerging his head in the man-made recreational river each time.
He noticed chunks of organic matter in the water and asked his instructor about it. Adams said he was told it was algae.
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“There were chunks of stuff going up my nose,” Adams recalled. “There was so much algae in the water it looked like poop. I was blowing chunks of algae out of my nose.”
His fear rose last week with news that, two days after his lesson, an Ohio teenager had died of a rare brain infection after visiting the Whitewater Center. Authorities believe she contracted a waterborne illness when she fell out of a raft and water went up her nose.
Before the center closed its whitewater channels last week, the decade-old facility relied on a disinfection and filtration system that was supposed to neutralize “99.99” percent of disease-carrying contaminants.
But the Centers for Disease Control on Thursday called that system inadequate to keep the water safe. Lab tests found 11 water samples from the center contained the presence of the amoeba Naegleria fowleri that infected and killed 18-year-old Lauren Seitz on June 19.
Although the amoeba is common in open bodies of fresh water, the CDC said it found levels at the Whitewater Center that were higher than those previously seen. The amoeba was not found in samples from the Catawba River but was detected in its sediment.
Accounts from center visitors suggest the center’s equipment was unable to properly filter and clean the 12 million gallons of water that recirculated within the 1,100-acre facility in western Mecklenburg County.
Rev. Jim Wilson, Seitz’s pastor in Westerville, Ohio, also said he was stunned the Whitewater Center waited four days to close the water channels after learning of Seitz’s death.
“There are a lot of uncertainties,” Wilson said. “We had 32 youths leave on the trip and only 31 came back. It’s devastating. We’re heartbroken. We are very concerned.”
Whitewater officials have not returned phone calls seeking comment about the center’s operating practices.
In prepared statements, the center has called Seitz’s death tragic but said risks are inherent at such a facility.
“Despite every measure we take, there is always a risk of injury or harm based on the very nature of what we do and who we are,” Chief Executive Officer Jeff Wise said in a June 22 statement. “Based on the fact that the CDC has informed us of the extremely low risk of an infection at the Center, along with the water treatment precautions taken, I am very comfortable that the Center remains responsible and reasonable in every respect as it relates to this particular health risk and all other risks associated with the Center.”
Alex and Amy Bromhead, who live in Stuart, Fla., added a rafting tour at the Whitewater Center to their three-day visit to Charlotte in May 2015. The couple had rafted in whitewater many times before.
Now, they think the center should be shut down.
Both were thrown repeatedly from the raft into shallow water, Amy Bromhead said Thursday. At one of the bigger rapids, she said, her husband fell six feet through the air into water two feet deep. The fall to the channel’s concrete bottom dislocated his left shoulder and gashed his elbow.
At home two days later, after a doctor in Charlotte stapled the elbow wound shut, an orthopedist prescribed antibiotics for the elbow. Alex Bromhead, who works in sales and is 52, woke at 4 a.m. the following day with unbearable pain and purple streaks radiating from his elbow.
He was rushed into surgery to treat the infection, and stayed in the hospital for a week on intravenous antibiotics. For five more weeks, the wound had to be painfully reopened twice a day to remove infected tissue. “It’s beyond excruciating,” Amy Bromhead said.
After lab cultures were grown, doctors found the infection had been caused by a waterborne bacteria, she said.
The Whitewater Center refunded their admission after the accident but refused any other compensation, she said. “They were very professional, they were never rude, but they said ‘Sorry it happened, everybody gets hurt at a high-adventure place and you signed a waiver,’ ” she said.
The Whitewater Center filters water each day with a system of stacked discs that trap particles. That is followed by ultraviolet radiation that is supposed to “inactivate” waterborne amoeba. Workers also periodically injected chlorine, a commonly used disinfectant, the center has said.
But the CDC says there was so much dirt, urine, sweat and other debris in the park’s water channel that the system likely was rendered ineffective.
For the ultraviolet radiation to work, the water must be clear enough for the rays to penetrate, the agency said. Debris and other muck can also soak up chlorine, leaving less available to kill threatening germs, the CDC said.
Clemson University biological scientist Lesly Temesvari said turbid waters should have indicated to the center that the filtration system was not functioning sufficiently.
“If you have a pool and a filter and the water is still cloudy, something is wrong,” Temesvari said.
She said hot, dry temperatures in recent weeks likely increased the concentration of the amoeba in the water. The single-cell animal is common in freshwater bodies, especially during the summer months.
The CDC also said the center’s shallow water depth and warm temperatures may increase the likelihood that the amoeba would proliferate.
The Whitewater Center says on its website that it will drain water from the channels to dry them and clean all concrete and rock in the channels. It also said it will test both its wells and city water supply for the amoeba. It’s not clear when the channels will reopen.
The center said it will work with health officials on additional water quality measures to minimize risks from the amoeba, but said it does not expect to eliminate them.
“The objective is to develop a water quality program that improves our chances of reducing the risk of exposure to Naegleria fowleri and provide better overall water quality,” a statement said. “We will have a better estimate on the time frame as we move forward.”
Living with fear
Adams, the Fort Mill kayaker, said that after he learned of the teen rafter’s death, he grew alarmed.
Infections occur when water goes up the nose. Symptoms begin with headache, fever and nausea and progress to balance problems and confusion. Infections are extremely rare but almost always fatal.
The infection may set in within 9 days.
On a recent night, Adams awakened panicked that he was infected. Another day he became worried when he suffered a headache after golfing.
“I researched online and realized how rare it is, but it was in the back of my mind,” Adams said.
Adams said his fears have now passed because the incubation period is over.
He said he paid upfront for the kayaking lessons and still had two sessions left. Adams said he’ll go back.
Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027