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Why The Whitewater Center Doesn't Plan To Test For Amoeba

A worker at the U.S. National Whitewater Center releases chlorine into the basin below the rafting channel in July.
Mecklenburg County

Last month the family of Lauren Seitz filed suit against the Whitewater Center and the company that designed part of it for wrongful death. The 18-year-old woman from Ohio died last year after coming into contact with a so called “brain-eating amoeba” while rafting at the center.

Since the tragedy, the county started regulating and inspecting the water quality at the center. And a June inspection determined the waters are safe. But this got us thinking about whether there will be continued testing for the amoeba?

The short answer is that the county doesn’t plan to test for the amoeba, Naegleria fowleri. And there are a few reasons why. First of all, the amoeba is naturally occurring in fresh water. So its mere presence isn’t necessarily a problem. The Centers for Disease Control says there have been attempts to determine a standard for what concentration of Naegleria fowleri poses an unacceptable risk, but no method exists to accurately do so.

Secondly, very few labs or companies do the test. Last year the CDC came in to test and found higher-than- normal levels than what is found in natural bodies of water.

The center can hold about 12 million gallons of water at any one time. It uses a combination of water from onsite wells and municipal water. The CDC also found the water treatment system wasn’t adequate to kill the amoeba.

The CDC reports infections from the amoeba are rare – on the order of a few a year. You can only get infected when the single-celled organism goes up your nose, which can happen when you are thrown from a raft and dunked under water, for example. If the amoeba enters the nose, it can travel to the brain and cause a rare, often fatal infection.   

The third reason the county isn’t testing for the amoeba is because it sent new water quality standards after Seitz died. The new regulations are designed to ensure the amoeba doesn’t have a place to grow, says Lisa Corbitt, the head of Mecklenburg County's Groundwater and Wastewater department.

“Our focus is on disinfection,” she said. “Also, maintaining the level or organics in the system instead of actually testing for the organism.”

A county inspection report shows as of June 1, 2017, the chlorine levels are about the same as the average swimming pool. And a county inspector found organic material wasn’t visible in the water. That’s important because organics help foster an environment for the amoeba to grow. The county will inspect the facility four times this year. The first was before it opened and was announced. The rest are supposed to be a surprise.

Corbitt said the Whitewater Center is required to test the water twice daily and keep records of those tests which are made available to the county during inspections. Prior to the June 2016 death of Seitz, the county shared detailed testing data from the Whitewater Center for various measures including fecal coliform levels – an indicator of disease-causing organisms.

When I requested those current detailed tests, the county said the Whitewater Center discontinued that type of monitoring last year. And since the center is now regulated by the county health department, the data is provided to them upon request. A Whitewater Center spokesman reiterated that. I was provided with a less detailed inspection report from June 2017.  That only included chlorine levels, pH levels, and whether or not organic material was visible at multiple testing sites within the center.

The Whitewater Center is mandated to have a secondary disinfection system as a backup to the chlorination system. That is more than the average swimming pool, said Corbitt.