Will Whitewater Parks Come Under Future Fire For Brain-Eating Amoeba Death?

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The timeline for re-opening whitewater activities is still being determined, the U.S. National Whitewater Center said this week after closing operations on June 24, following the death of 18-year-old Lauren Seitz from Ohio. The teen contracted the brain-eating Naegleria Fowleri amoeba, allegedly after visiting the Center in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said 11 samples taken from U.S. National Whitewater Center water tested positive for Naegleria fowleri, an amoeba that lives in freshwater (and in soil) and when absorbed through the nasal passages, can lead to death.

The USNWC’s water sanitation program, compromised by debris and turbidity, is the being blamed for the park’s high levels of the amoeba. “Our goal is to be rafting again in a matter of weeks,” Whitewater Center officials said.

The typically world-class facility updated it’s public statement on Monday: “Due to the information shared by public health officials regarding Naegleria fowleri, the USNWC has voluntarily suspended whitewater operations. All other aspects of the facility are open including land activities, flatwater activities, our trail system, and food and beverage operations.”

“Our first step is to remove all of the water from the whitewater system and clean the entirety of the channels. In the meantime, we have been working with water quality experts as well as aquatic design and engineer firms to implement additional water quality measures as we work to bring our whitewater system back online.”

Each November, the whitewater channels are completely drained and an extensive cleaning process takes place. The water is then returned to the channels in early March. The USNWC utilizes a third-party testing laboratory service to examine water quality on a weekly basis. The lab’s tests focus on fecal coliform, PH levels, temperature, and total suspended solids.

The USNWC (an official training site for U.S. Olympic whitewater athletes) will also host the inaugural Fall CycloFest presented by Interbike October 20-23. Former U.S. Olympian and slalom canoe champion Scott Shipley’s firm, S2O Design & Engineering of Boulder, designed the USNWC course as well as the the $45.2 million Riversport Rapids in Oklahoma City’s Boathouse District, according to SportsOneSource, home to the USA Canoe and Kayak Federation.

The USNWC’s 24 miles of mountain biking trails, restaurant and banquet facility, ropes course and zip line, climbing tower — and the flatwater paddling on the adjacent Catawba River — continue to operate as usual.

USNWC said the CDC does not generally recommend testing because the amebae is naturally occurring and there is no established relationship between detection or concentration of Naegleria fowleri and risk of infection.

According to the CDC, “Attempts have been made to determine what concentration of Naegleria fowleri in the environment poses an unacceptable risk. However, no method currently exists that accurately and reproducibly measures the numbers of amebae in the water. This makes it unclear how a standard might be set to protect human health and how public health officials would measure and enforce such a standard.”

North Carolina and Mecklenburg County health department officials have been working with the USNWC and water quality professionals to develop improvements to its water quality plan sourced from other water quality programs from existing uses such as pools, municipal water systems, and water parks. The goal is to develop a water quality program that everyone is comfortable with and represents the best practices and technology possible, the 1,100-acre, non-profit USNWC said in its statement.

“The water contained in the whitewater channels is in a closed loop system comprised entirely of concrete. The water is disinfected with ultraviolet radiation and filtered with a disc filtration system. The UV system is a constant application and treats 12 million gallons of water every 24 hours,” whitewater park officials said.

As it relates to other man-made whitewater parks, the medical director for the Mecklenburg County Health Department said at a press conference: “We don’t know very much about how Naegleria fowleri lives and grows in systems like this, which is kind of a combination of characteristics with natural rivers and lakes environment and city water.”