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After 'Brain-Eating Ameba,' CDC, County, Whitewater Center Sort Through What's Next

Michael Tomsic
An empty concrete channel where rapids would normally flow at the Whitewater Center.

It's been a strange and tragic summer at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. In mid-June, a young woman died from an extremely rare brain infection after rafting at the Charlotte facility. Within a week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the presence of the type of microorganism that likely caused the infection. Since then, the whitewater channel has been closed, regulatory questions have been raised, and fear and misinformation have spread.

As visitors at the Whitewater Center propelled down a zip line recently, CEO Jeff Wise overlooked the lower part of the whitewater channel.

"This is the bottom pond," he says, "where all of the water in our essentially 12-million gallon system rests while it's ready to be pumped back up into the top pond, where it'll float back down through the channels."

But for now, it just sits there. There’s been no whitewater rafting for about three weeks because CDC tests found what’s best known as "the brain-eating ameba."

That name requires some context, as Mecklenburg County Health Director Dr. Marcus Plescia has pointed out repeatedly.

"This organism, Naegleria fowleri, is actually quite a prevalent or commonly occurring organism in open bodies of water," he says. "We find it in lakes. We find it in ponds. It’s very common for people to come into contact with, but it’s very uncommon for people to develop this kind of infection with it."

It’s harmless if swallowed because stomach acid kills it. But if it’s in water forced up your nose, it can cause a brain infection that’s almost always fatal.

The CDC reports over the last decade, an average of fewer than four people per year have acquired that infection in all of the United States.  

Sam Perkins is always on the watch for water quality issues as the Catawba Riverkeeper. The thing that surprised him from all this is that the Whitewater Center is not regulated for water quality.

"At the very least from a public health perspective, I honestly believed and I think a lot of other people did as well that this site would've been regulated like any other water park, like we have at Carowinds or anywhere else in the country," he says.

But the Whitewater Center is in a regulatory no-man’s land between those and a natural body of water.

Governor Pat McCrory says the state needs to reexamine whether it should be treated like a swimming pool. Mecklenburg County Commissioner Dumont Clarke asked county health leaders about that at a recent meeting.

"If you tested this similar to what we do for swimming pools, would you have tested for this particular ameba?" he asked. "Everybody is shaking their heads no."

Testing for the ameba is not part of swimming pool regulations. Chlorine is effective at killing it in those settings. And besides, the county and the state don’t have the ability to test for it. It’s usually up to the CDC. 

Commissioner Bill James asked county Medical Director Dr. Stephen Keener this question.

"Right now there do not exist any standards from the federal or state government about this, so we're at a standstill until that's provided, which is in your next steps, basically?"

"That's correct," Dr. Keener replied.

Some commissioners said state lawmakers should’ve done something before heading home for the year. Commissioner Jim Puckett defended the legislature.

"One of the things government does a really bad job of is: there's a problem so they immediately do something without really knowledge of what that something ought to be," he said.

The Whitewater Center treats its water with UV radiation, some chlorine and a filtration system. As part of its lease agreement with the county, it also does weekly tests for common contaminants called fecal coliform. The county usually reviews those test records once a year, says Rusty Rozzelle of storm water services. 

"They've been monitoring that since it opened 10 years ago," he says, "and they've had one occurrence when that level was exceeded."

That was August of last year. The center should’ve temporarily closed the whitewater channel. But that didn’t happen and the county didn’t get a heads up. The county says the Whitewater Center’s facility director at the time no longer works there. The center would not discuss personnel matters. 

The county is not aware of anyone getting sick from that period. Whitewater Center CEO Jeff Wise says over the past decade, other than the recent brain infection, "We're not aware of any reports - with the probably 1.5 million rafters that we've had - where any water quality was complained of or was mentioned as far as any kind of safety or health related issues."

County health leaders and the Catawba Riverkeeper have pointed out that people are much more likely to die from drowning or boating accidents in area lakes and rivers. In fact, there have already been at least eight of those deaths this summer.

But people just don’t get as worked up about those. Harvard professor David Ropeik explains why. 

"We worry about things not only based on the likelihood of them happening but the nature of the experience itself," he says. "The odds may be low of brain-eating ameba eating your brain, but the nature of a brain-eating ameba eating your brain sounds pretty scary, doesn't it?"

Ropeik is the author of "How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match The Facts." He says the media is part of the problem.

"Anything that makes a risk feel scarier like THIS-IS-THE-ZOMBIE-AMEBA is going to subconsciously interest journalists as something that will get people's attention," he says, "because the viewer, reader, listener is likely to pay attention to a story that could portend their death."

That’s how you end up with stories that say the Whitewater Center’s treatment system is not adequate to keep the water safe at all. What CDC Dr. Jennifer Cope really said was it’s inadequate to handle this particular ameba.

"The Whitewater Center as far as we know is maybe one of three in the country, and so it poses some unique challenges," she says. "We’re trying to gather experts from other fields to potentially address the issue."

Eleven out of 11 tests for the ameba were positive. Dr. Cope called that significant but noted this is the first time the CDC has encountered the ameba in this type of setting. 

She says there are ways to make the water less conductive to the ameba’s growth. Options include making it colder and reducing algae and other biomass in the channel. The CDC, county and whitewater center are also still determining what to do with the old water that has the ameba.

It’s unclear how long it’ll all take. In the meantime, the Whitewater Center isn’t making money off its signature and most expensive activity. However, Wise says only about one-fifth of their visitors go rafting. The activities that draw the other four out of five visitors are still open.